Fresh from his Sydney piano prize, 23-year-old Jeonghwan Kim dazzles

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This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes the award-winning pianist Jeonghwan Kim, the Prince of Reggaeton, J Balvin, a bright new musical by Tom Gleisner, a long-awaited opera by George Dreyfus, five-star performances by 070 Shake and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a sold-out show by Noah Cyrus, a high-energy, high-camp gig by Tove Lo, and a work of theatre looking at a true story of Australia’s first all-woman motor garage.

Jeonghwan Kim Debut National Tour ★★★★½
Sydney International Piano Competition, Melbourne Recital Centre, July 25

Fresh from his weekend victory at the Sydney International Piano Competition, 23-year-old Korean pianist Jeonghwan Kim has dazzled a small but appreciative Melbourne audience with a substantial program, amply demonstrating his versatile, prize-winning pianism.

Drawing out and developing the dramatic elements of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, Les Adieux, Kim delivered a thoughtfully characterised performance, full of subtly shaded colourings that gave eloquent voice to these musings on leave-taking and reunion.

Jeonghwan Kim displayed his versatile, prize-winning pianism.

After Beethoven’s joyful gentility, the manic modernism of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 came as a shock. Kim did not let the gargantuan technical demands of the work get in the way of relating its musical argument, even if the literal hard-hitting writing of the first movement sent the piano somewhat out of tune. Kim aptly contrasted his extraordinary dynamism here and in the finale with the surreal elements of the inner movements.

Kim’s traversal of Schumann’s four Nachtstucke Op. 23 was marked by fine dramatic agility, where his ability to morph seamlessly between the music’s vastly different moods in the second and third pieces was deeply impressive, as was the hushed close to the fourth.

While imparting tenderness to Chopin’s celebrated Berceuse Op. 57, Kim kept a keen eye on the overall trajectory of the work, ensuring that pianistic filigree did not detract from the music’s gentle rocking motion.

Delivered with an astonishing fearlessness, Messiaen’s Regard of the Spirit of Joy was certainly joyful and exultant; the composer’s leaping dance rhythms seemed to acquire a life of their own.

As an encore, Kim gave a barnstorming account of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, once again keeping decorative details well controlled.

Neatly balancing power and poetry, there is no doubt Kim is a polished, articulate artist. As his career progresses, may his poetic pianism continue to grow.
Reviewed by Tony Way

J Balvin ★★★½
Margaret Court Arena, July 23

“I have not heard of that particular global superstar,” a friend in town to see Lizzo confessed to me. I was asking the wrong people. Though perhaps not a household name, J Balvin has collaborated with Cardi B, Skrillex, Ed Sheeran and Jennifer Lopez. He’s been nominated for Grammys. He was one of the most streamed artists in the world in 2020. He is the Prince of Reggaeton.

There are some 43,000 Spanish speakers in Victoria. The pop music world is ever-splintering and spawning new genres, and the Latin American pop industry is huge – and growing.

J Balvin, flanked by back-up dancers and a giant inflatable tank at Margaret Court Arena.Credit: Rick Clifford

The crowd tonight are enthusiastic reggaeton connoisseurs. Even before Balvin takes the stage, a house music selection of reggaeton, Latin trap, dancehall and dembow, from frequent Balvin collaborators like Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee, has the crowd moving in a very non-Sunday night way.

When Balvin arrives, weed and candy-scented vape waft through the Arena. He’s wearing a balaclava, is flanked by eight back-up dancers, and his sidekick DJ Pope is perched atop a giant inflatable foil tank that looks like one of Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car sculptures. The aesthetic Balvin is going for tonight is Transformers-meets-Counter-Strike retro video game, but in a strip club. The dancers shed layers, twerk, grind and swing nunchucks in black latex two-pieces. There’s a flash of a simulated orgy. Reggaeton is known for its rigid adherence to hip-hop gender roles, even though the old-school rote misogyny and militaristic visuals are a little at odds with Balvin’s smiling, pleasant persona (“never stop dreaming,” he implores us between songs).

J Balvin amps up to full crowd-shaking high-BPM dance mode.Credit: Rick Clifford

The energy amps up throughout the night – near the beginning he sits on the edge of the stage with a couple of audience members for a ballad (Monique from the Gold Coast got a nice selfie), and by the end of the night we’re in full crowd-shaking high-BPM dance mode. His collabs get the biggest reactions, from La Canción (with Bad Bunny) to RITMO (with Black Eyed Peas) and Mi Gente (with Willy William and Beyoncé). The crowning moment is the US number one hit I Like It, which is mostly driven by a pre-recorded Cardi B vocal, leaving Balvin to stalk the stage surveying his empire.

The crowd know every word, and hang off every word. And they often know each other too. They lean across seats to greet each other. It’s a reminder that no matter how aware of the zeitgeist you are, there’s another, hidden zeitgeist that someone else is vibing with. And they’re having the time of their lives.|
Reviewed by Will Cox

Bloom ★★★★
Music: Katie Weston, book and lyrics: Tom Gleisner

MTC, Arts Centre Melbourne, until August 19

A bright new musical set in Australia’s aged care system? The subject couldn’t be darker. The 2021 royal commission report unearthed nightmarish stories of neglect and abuse, calling for fundamental reform of the sector to safeguard the rights of the elderly. And the pandemic amplified awareness of the human cost of placing the vulnerable at the mercy of an industry that puts dollars before people.

Anne Edmonds as the penny-pinching manager of an aged care home leads the cast of Bloom.Credit: Pia Johnson/MTC

You’d need a serious gift for comedy to pull off a bloody musical that wasn’t depressing, and Tom Gleisner – who includes The Castle in his long list of career highlights – is up to the challenge. Bloom rides a familiar vibe of little people against a big bad system, and spirals from situational comedy into social satire and outright farce, with a dollop of romcom and some feelgood schmaltz worked in.

When the unconventional Rose (Evelyn Krape) becomes a reluctant resident of Pine Grove aged care home, she meets Finn (Slone Sudiro), a young music student between share houses, in the foyer on her first day.

He’s agreed to a dodgy deal, working as (an unqualified) carer in exchange for room and board – a plan hatched by the home’s penny-pinching manager Mrs MacIntyre (Anne Edmonds) to protect her bottom line.

Unlike her, two aged care workers – Gloria (Christina O’Neill) and Ruby (Vidya Makan) – genuinely care for the residents’ welfare and do their best in the face of relentless cuts.

Evelyn Krape (right) with Slone Sudiro and Maria Mercedes in Bloom.Credit: Pia Johnson/MTC

And the residents themselves are a colourful and quirky lot.

There’s gruff tradie Doug (Frankie J. Holden) and artist Leslie (Jackie Rees) navigating a tentative late-life romance; Betty (Maria Mercedes), a kleptomaniac in a mobility scooter whose son never visits her; Roland (John O’May), a pompous actor prone to reliving his glory days on the boards; and the heavily medicated Sal (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) jolted from long silence through music.

As Mrs MacIntyre’s budget cuts cross the line into cruelty, can acts of defiance from Rose and Finn change things for the better?

New musicals are hard work, and it’s a credit to an all-star multigenerational cast, and Dean Bryant’s swift direction, that every element of the craft gels here.

Katie Weston’s music roves from folk rock to Broadway ballad, with fractious duets between Finn and Ruby and a hilarious comic showstopper from Edmonds’ neoliberal ball-breaker. At worst, some melodies are forgettable but easy to take, and the show succeeds in the more challenging task of making the music feel like an inevitable extension of the drama.

Dann Barber’s set design holds the eye and creates a Pine Grove as unlovely as the residents are loveable. And the pacing and profusion of the comedy – laugh a minute is underselling it – should lend broad appeal to this big-hearted, home-grown musical theatre romp.

Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead

070 Shake ★★★★★
Northcote Theatre, July 22

Standing on stage before vertical white LED Lights, 070 Shake (real name Danielle Balbuena) appears like an angelic silhouette, her soaring vocals filling the large heritage performance space at Northcote Theatre. Arriving in Melbourne after appearing at Splendour in the Grass the day before, the 26-year-old graciously tells the packed floor at her debut headline tour in Australia: “This is the furthest I’ve ever been from home.”

070 Shake’s soaring vocals filled the Northcote Theatre.Credit: Richard Clifford

The rapper and singer, whose name references her home town of New Jersey and rap collective 070, performs songs from her albums Modus Vivendi and You Can’t Kill Me, which were released jointly under Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music and Jay-Z’s Def Jam recording labels in 2020 and 2022 respectively. She also debuts new, unreleased material, including single Black Dress.

Her sound is a mix of pop, alternative and hip-hop that’s reminiscent of Kid Cudi, which is reflected in the repertoire of poetically layered tracks in her set. She transitions with ease from songs filled with self-reflection such as Flight319 to upbeat dance tracks like Honey, a collaboration with 070. She shifts gears to an ultra-blue lighting tinge for a performance of Blue Velvet, a sultry percussive number referencing a dress worn by a lover.

070 Shake has the swagger of a far more seasoned artist.Credit: Richard Clifford

The illumination from the LED and stage downlights make 070 Shake seem like a celestial being. Her swagger on stage suggests the confidence of a far more seasoned artist than one just starting to establish themselves internationally. She pours herself a drink between songs, throws flower petals into the crowd and reaches out to sign a fan’s phone case.

070 Shake represents a new breed of rappers who demonstrate strength with vulnerability, and assert power through compassion. She humbly expresses her appreciation at being in a room full of people who “understand my music, and understand me”.

“I’ll remember this moment forever, I promise,” she says before she launches into her final song, and so will her fans.

Reviewed by Vyshnavee Wijekumar

The Gilt-Edged Kid ★★

Athenaeum Theatre, July 22

George Dreyfus’ pursuit to see his opera, The Gilt-Edged Kid, performed is an obsession that has stewed for more than 50 years. It’s a shame that after so long on the backburner, its premiere was cruelly undercooked.

The Gilt-Edged Kid by George Dreyfus.

IOpera artistic director Peter Tregear admitted as much in an opening address to the audience, calling it a “work in progress”. He also informed us the tenor due to sing the title role pulled out five days ago. It might have prompted the question: it’s been 53 years, what’s another few weeks to get things right? But this concert was to be performed as a gift to Dreyfus on the composer’s 95th birthday.

The opera tells the story of a political contest between the Administrator and a radical leader, the Kid. The challenge is five-part: a game of strategy, a singing contest, gambling, woodchopping and archery – the winner of the most rounds will take power. The figures are also visited by three ghosts of politics past: a French revolutionary, a medieval martyr and a Soviet-era official. The Administrator might play the oppressor but the Kid isn’t an affable rebel, his comments about women make it difficult to know who to root for. No one is likeable. But some might argue, that’s politics.

Dreyfus’ musical style, of largely unconventional harmony and difficult rhythms, can see even very experienced singers come undone. It’s a tough ask for anyone to step in only days out, let alone a young tenor in Lyndon Green. He is to be forgiven for an imperfect performance.

His counterpart, Christopher Hillier, is an admirable Administrator, with commanding vocal presence and clarity of the English text. Highlights of the supporting vocals include Rebecca Rashleigh’s shimmering coloratura and Nicholas Beecher’s smooth baritone. Conductor Warwick Stengards confidently led an eight-piece ensemble, of whom percussionists Aditya Bhat and Leah Columbine displayed laudable deftness.

George Dreyfus then and now.Credit: Stuart William MacGladrie, Eddie Jim

We don’t know why Opera Australia has never performed The Gilt-Edged Kid, after expressing interest in 1969. The company has never publicly given a reason, despite the fight that has consumed literally half of Dreyfus’ life. IOpera hopes to stage the opera in future, but there’s work to be done before then. This concert was just for George, offered by those who respect and care for him deeply, though it is an odd feeling to attend theatre that is given in service of one rather than all. Like crashing the birthday party of someone you’ve never met.

Reviewed by Bridget Davies

Yeah Yeah Yeahs ★★★★★
Margaret Court Arena, July 20

Music really was better when I was young. Every generation thinks that, but for my generation it’s true. Consider Yeah Yeah Yeahs – arguably the greatest band to come out of the hedonistic New York indie sleaze/art-rock revival of the early millennium, and still one of the best live acts in the world.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform in Melbourne on July 20.Credit: Rick Clifford

They kicked things off with the fantastically dark and apocalyptic new single Spitting Off the Edge of The World. It was a perfect showcase for frontwoman Karen “O” Orzolek’s voice, which is rich and theatrical, alternately tender and metal. A voice that makes her one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great entertainers. We must discuss the outfits.

It’s difficult to separate the wild stage presence from the singular style. She enters with the stage glowing an ominous red – and wearing some kind of cape over iridescent green-tasselled bell-bottoms with matching sleeves. How many people could walk onto a stage looking like Yves Saint Laurent’s Christmas tree and be so unimpeachably cool?

Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen “O” Orzolek.Credit: Rick Clifford

About halfway through the set, before performing Zero – the 2009 party anthem about ambition and wearing cool leather outfits – the cape vanishes and is replaced with an iconic studded moto jacket. O throws fits, in every sense of the word.

Karen O became famous for her onstage anarchy – spitting beer at the audience and once dancing so hard on a previous Australian tour that she briefly hospitalised herself. Time has not diminished that stage presence.

The setlist was perfectly balanced to showcase the introspective new album Cool It Down and the wild art rock of 20 years ago, culminating in a rush of hits: Gold Lion, Maps, Heads Will Roll and an encore of Y Control, and a final act of chaotic wailing and throwing the mic around the stage like a toy out of a cot. Which, really, is how we should all be acting after the past few years.

Full catharsis, five stars, no notes.
Reviewed by Liam Pieper

Noah Cyrus | The Hardest Part Tour ★★½
170 Russell, July 20

Noah Cyrus casually strolls on stage with minimal fanfare – the complacency of a performer from a well-known musical legacy who is about to sing to a sold-out eager crowd.

Noah Cyrus performs in Melbourne on July 20.Credit: Rick Clifford

Wearing a white translucent dress, her long dark hair framing her face, 23-year-old Cyrus dances seductively as she performs songs from her debut studio album The Hardest Part. A graphic of a country field with a rustic teal barn backgrounds the stage, a nod to her Nashville upbringing. As the daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus and sister of pop superstar Miley Cyrus, pursuing music is in her blood, earning her a Best New Artist nomination at the 2021 Grammy Awards.

Noah (Stand Still) and Mr. Percocet set the scene for the melancholy and gothic tone that permeates her most recent work.

Older singles are also woven throughout the performance. I Got So High That I Saw Jesus has Cyrus raising her hand in the air as if summoning God before her parishioner-like audience. The introductory bars of her popular track July elicit cheers, and her collaboration Again with controversial late rapper XXXTentacion is haunting, with Cyrus slapping her wrists together above her head and throwing her head back as the stage lights turn a blood-red hue.

The set starts and finishes strong, but what happens between feels messy and at times monotonous as the songs meld into one another. She duets with support act and frequent collaborator PJ Harding mid-set, but their harmonies feel unrehearsed more often than not.

It’s clear that Cyrus has the foundations for strong vocals, but she struggles to moderate and control the peaks and troughs of her range.Credit: Rick Clifford

It’s clear that Cyrus has the foundations for strong vocals, but she struggles to moderate and control the peaks and troughs of her range. She sings about love, death, substance use and religion, but the words feel empty as the feeling behind them doesn’t translate.

Cyrus is early in her career with room to grow and form her own identity outside of her family. With time and more experience, her performances will match her potential.
Reviewed by Vyshnavee Wijekumar

Tove Lo ★★★½
Forum, July 19

It’s been a great year for high-energy pop shows, with tours from Dua Lipa, Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen in the past 12 months. Swedish electropop singer Tove Lo is among them, returning for the second time in less than a year, this time on the back of her latest album, Dirt Femme.

Swedish singer Tove Lo brought her brand of electropop to Melbourne.Credit: Rick Clifford

Lo’s brand of pop is darker than that of her contemporaries, but retains a campy sense of fun that’s reflected in her extravagant costumes. The crowd, largely made up of the girls, the gays and the theys similarly dressed to the nines, takes some time to match Lo’s energy – for the first few songs, there are cheers and whoops, but not much movement.

That changes on 2 Die 4, which interpolates Hot Butter’s synth classic Popcorn. From there, it’s an all-out party, with Lo’s four-piece band and a constantly changing video backdrop adding colour and liveliness. At times, the production is like a stadium show in miniature – wind machine and all.

Lo’s voice is in fine form, especially during a piano-led performance of early single Moments and Cool Girl, which she finishes a cappella after a full-band version is marred by technical issues.

It shines even more in the encore, when she performs her cover of fellow Swede Robyn’s Dancing On My Own made for triple j’s Like A Version. It’s impressive to hear her unadorned vocals in these more intimate moments, free of big pop song effects.

Tove Lo’s voice is in fine form.Credit: Rick Clifford

Whether inviting the crowd to crouch low and then jump up all at once on Talking Body or simply moving herself, Lo keeps the energy high.

While she doesn’t quite hit the same heights as the bigger names in the game, it’s still a treat to spend a cold midweek evening getting sweaty and loud with an underrated pop gem.
Reviewed by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Garage Girls ★★★★
La Mama, until July 30

Six decades before Kylie Minogue played Charlene Robinson – the plucky, overall-clad mechanic in Neighbours – Alice Anderson was running Australia’s first all-woman motor garage from the Melbourne suburb of Kew.

Garage Girls is inspired by a true story from Melbourne’s past.Credit: Darren Gill

The trailblazing entrepreneur hasn’t been forgotten. Loretta Smith’s 2019 biography A Spanner in the Works memorialised her life for future generations, and the Victorian government’s current $10 million program to provide seed funding for women-led startups was named after Anderson.

Now La Mama celebrates Anderson’s achievement, brought to the stage through lively and deeply researched ensemble theatre.

The play relishes skewering contemporary male attitudes.Credit: Darren Gill

Garage Girls is spearheaded by Madelaine Nunn’s performance as Alice. She captures a young woman of dauntless vitality and drive, whose knowledge of and passion for all things automotive could outmatch any man’s.

Being more competent and more ambitious than men in your field was, for pioneering women like Anderson, the only palpable riposte to misogyny. And casual disparagement of women when it comes to cars still lingers.

The play relishes skewering contemporary male attitudes – from stuffy bank managers baulking at giving a loan to an unmarried woman, to the spiteful sexism of male mechanics outclassed and outcompeted – but it is the other side to Anderson’s fight against prejudice, the creation of a professional enterprise in which women felt they belonged, that takes centre stage.

Anderson employed and trained only women as chauffeurs and mechanics. The ensemble sketches the garage workers with comic charm, and a palpable sense of excitement and camaraderie.

The romantic lens deserves a capital R. This Anderson loves Keats, though there’s more unexpected poetry under the bonnet as she casts a spell of automotive erudition, in technical vocabulary that would make any true motorhead proud. And the play’s treatment of a tentative same-sex relationship is sensitive to the silences in queer history: it’s unclear if Anderson was a closeted lesbian, or if her sexuality was a mystery even to herself.

Still, nothing could eclipse Anderson’s passion for cars, and the melancholy mystery of her early death at 29 years of age – ruled a firearms accident by the coroner – only underscores how remarkable a woman Anderson was, and how much she achieved.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead

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