‘Keating,’ ‘Man’ boost companies

Shows benefit from reviews, word of mouth

SYDNEY — Neil Armfield’s Company B theater troupe is enjoying its biggest B.O. success in 10 years with the musical “Keating!”, while just a few kilometers across Sydney, the Griffin Theater Company has just wrapped its third sell-out season of HIV drama “Holding the Man.”

Neither production features above-the-line performers or renowned writers. But each show has sold itself through positive reviews and strong word of mouth.

On May 26, “Holding the Man” shuttered after a limited, 3½ week season at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse, having successfully transitioned from Griffin’s 120-seat Stables Theater, where it debuted in November.

Despite tough emotional subject matter — “Holding the Man,” helmed by former Griffin a.d. David Berthold, explores the long-term relationship of an HIV-positive couple — Tommy Murphy’s playhas notched 103 perfs .

The Stables production achieved 100% capacity over 11 weeks; the Playhouse season, revamped for the bigger stage, achieved 97%.

Gross B.O. for the production is nudging A$500,000 ($440,000), peanuts for some entrepreneurs but a considerable achievement for a subsidized subscription company dedicated to staging new Aussie works.

Nick Marchand, Griffin’s current a.d., smiles at the suggestion one of Sydney’s smaller companies could strike it rich with a hit production.

“We’re looking at it as a long-term investment that will allow us to build Griffin as a brand,” he told Variety.

Griffin covered the cost of rehearsing and revamping the production ahead of the Playhouse season, then sold rights to the Opera House, which took the risk.

Dates in other Australian capitals are being drawn up, and Marchand is confident a tour to Blighty and possibly the U.S. will follow.

At Company B’sBelvoir St Theater, the “Keating!” phenomenon has been a little more explosive.

Casey Benetto’s musical parody of Aussie politics in the 1980s and ’90s (Paul Keating was the country’s Prime Minister 1991-96) debuted at the 2005 Melbourne Comedy Festival. A haphazard national tour followed before it arrived at the Belvoirlast November in a production revamped by Armfield.

Co-helmers Armfield and Benetto added a half-hour, a handful of new tunes and re-jigged the cast and musicians to make the rock-opera more theatrical.

A national tour built from there, fueled by critical support, capacity audiences and curiosity about Benetto’s grotesque characterizations of well-known pols, including current Prime Minister John Howard.

Also on May 26, “Keating!” wrapped a 6½ week run at Melbourne’s 1,000-seat Comedy Theater and has played 130 perfs in just seven months.

Show returns for a fourth Sydney run June 20 at the 780-seat York Theater, which is selling well, though Benetto has stepped down from his co-starring role to pen his next Company B production. Melbourne cabaret wunderkind Eddie Perfect has replaced him.

Profits from “Keating!” have enabled Company B to avoid undertaking a loan to cover cost blow-outs from renovating its theater last year. Middleton says the loan would have compromised the company’s creative future.

“Most arts companies (in Oz) run on such incredibly limited resources that we are constantly unable to do things that need to be done,” she says.

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