Excellent writing, inventive staging and a talented young opera cast result in a delightfully charming, family friendly, dinky di, true blue production.
Norman Lindsay’s comic fantasy proves such an ideal basis for a children’s opera that it seems incredible it has taken 95 years for this to eventuate. Populated by a vibrant menagerie of characters and full of brisk, breezy incidents, the story whizzes by in a haze of gentle enjoyment. Most perfect of all, the saccharine tendencies of children’s theatre are nullified by a title character that is crankier, surlier and stingier than a regular villain.
Composer Calvin Bowman and librettist Anna Goldsworthy have created an accessible, enjoyable score that neatly balances the singsong verse of Lindsay’s writing style with a more traditionally classical sound. Rousing trios and quartets abound, along with a number of appealing solos. Recitative is accompanied by music so expressive that it brings to mind the lively scores of Looney Tunes cartoons.
Fast-rising young conductor Daniel Carter leads a deft, sprightly performance from the 12-piece orchestra. Vocal preparation is excellent, with diction clear and precise. The stage action is flanked by two halves of a children’s chorus, who sing beautifully and maintain excellent concentration.
Director Cameron Menzies expertly juggles clear, distinct storytelling with humorous physical action. Most impressive is the authentic character work that stays true to the piece by avoiding any trace of over-the-top pantomiming that could easily mar the work in less capable hands.
Top marks to designer Chloe Greaves for her evocative sets and wonderful costumes, which preserve the look and feel of the original illustrations whilst adding plenty of individual flourishes of flair and style. The woodland backdrop is exceptional, especially as lit by lighting designer Peter Darby to perfectly capture the glow of bush twilight. The quality of the character costumes reflects a high level of imagination, wit and skill.
To cap off all this creative expertise, there is the Magic Pudding itself, constructed by Vanessa Ellis. Adorably grouchy of face and lankly long of limb, the design would sell like hotcakes in the foyer of a commercial staging.
Pudding is expertly portrayed by Jeremy Kleeman, who successfully balances his own acting and vocals with the actions of the puppet. Kleeman’s strong bass is showcased in an endearing lament sung by the self-pitying Pudding.
Kleeman is joined by his six fellow Masters of Music graduates from Victorian Opera’s collaboration with Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne: Carlos E. Bárcenas, Kirilie Blythman, Olivia Cranwell, Christine Heald, Timothy Reynolds, Daniel Todd.
The Masters graduates are joined by a couple of very talented colleagues: emerging bass baritone Nathan Lay and skillful young soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. Magnetic performer Lay adds another charming role to his fast-growing repertoire as adorable Bunyip Bluegum. A proven team player, Lay makes up a significant portion of the joyful trio of Puddin’ Owners. The role suits his voice perfectly and his singing is effortlessly superb. Betts-Dean brings an infectious joy to the role of droopy dog Benjamin Brandysnap, soon to become the fourth member of the Puddin’ Owners. The vocal requirements of Brandysnap may not allow Betts-Dean to demonstrate her full range, but her contributions are characteristically lovely.
Reynolds has the ideal look for blustery Bill Barnacle, and imbues the character with warmth and joy. Reynolds’ pleasant tenor voice is not entirely suited to the larger-than-life character but is nonetheless a pleasure to hear. Todd, almost unrecognisable in the adorable penguin guise of Sam Sawnoff, skillfully conveys an appealing, effervescent characterisation. Todd’s singing is reliably excellent, and he blends beautifully in the upbeat Puddin’ Owners’ anthems.
Blythman sings with animated sweetness and maintains a sunny, engaging presence as the cockatoo Narrator. Cranwell and Heald are a hoot as mischievous Puddin’ Thieves Watkin Wombat and Possum, with Cranwell scoring extra points for a delicious cameo as the clucky Rooster. Bárcenas brings a solid presence to the role of the hapless Judge. Tobias Glaser provides warm comic support and strong tenor vocals as Henderson Hedgehog and Constable.
With the glow of nostalgia for adults and the fun of colourful comedy for children, The Magic Pudding is ideal festive fare, destined to bring pleasure to scores of theatregoers.
The Magic Pudding plays at Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until 6 October 2013 before embarking on a tour of regional Victoria.
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Photos: Charlie Kinross
This review published on Theatre People 5 October 2013