Nostalgia currently rules at Sydney’s big three commercial theatres, along with a hefty dose of pragmatism. Old favourites are back in relatively modest productions that have been designed to tour. Nothing is settling in for too long, which is undoubtedly a wise move. Who’d be a producer these days? It’s hard enough at the best of times to know what will excite the public but these are not the best of times. We are now in a kinda sorta post-COVID period in which fear has given way to living with the virus but some pre-COVID norms haven’t returned. Like going to the theatre in droves.
It’s not surprising, then, to see a strong retreat to the familiar and the undemanding. At the Theatre Royal you can see Rocky Horror Show (1973). Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (first conceived 1968, first full version 1974) is playing at the Capitol. The baby of the group at a mere 20 years old, Hairspray (2002), is rocking the Lyric. All opened within a week of each other in the emerald city, Hairspray after seasons in Melbourne and Adelaide and Joseph after opening in Melbourne.
Let’s start with the best of the trio, Rocky Horror. Before even a note of Richard O’Brien’s score was played the audience was shivering with anticipation, to quote one of Dr Frank N Furter’s best-loved lines. Indeed, on opening night star Jason Donovan was pipped to the post by someone in the stalls when it came to finishing that phrase; anticipated, you might say.
The audience’s passionate identification with the show was palpable. Lots of cosplay, plenty of singing along, all the moves to the Time Warp absorbed. The fervently followed cult-hit film (1975) has done its work well and you don’t have to wait too long for a stage revival to come around. Some have been very good – Gale Edwards’s 2008 production starring the incomparable iOTA – and some just ghastly. Chief exhibit in the latter category is the 2014 version with Craig McLachlan that had all the nudge, nudge, wink, wink allure of a smutty postcard. But whether productions are good or bad, they have all moved quite some distance from the show’s thrillingly subversive, grungy origins. Those who were there back in the day can’t help but think that’s regrettable. The memory of Reg Livermore et al at the New Arts Cinema in Glebe in 1974 burns bright.
But change is also understandable. The send-up of 1950s B-grade sci-fi movies doesn’t have the purchase it once did and, more pertinently, the transvestites and transsexuals boldly celebrated on stage in 1973 are now sitting happily in the auditorium. The shock value has gone. Half a century of evolution will do that.
The passage of time is reflected in Hugh Durrant’s set, rendered brightly in the now de rigueur bubble-gum colours that evoke cartoons more than the weird delights of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the black-and-white film name-checked in the show’s opening number. But British director Christopher Luscombe’s production is bucketloads of mad fun and distinguished by Donovan’s fabulously sung Frank N Furter, visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Apart from his laboratory skills, with his slightly frayed Old Hollywood charisma and command Frank is a persuasive advocate for sexual freedom, managing in a single chaotic evening to educate Brad and Janet (Ethan Jones and Deirdre Khoo, both terrific) in the ways of the flesh.
The overly enthusiastic amplification of the band, perched on high above the stage, made it hard on occasion to keep up with O’Brien’s witty lyrics – no problem for the devotees, who have every syllable locked in their hearts – but there was knockout singing from Donovan, Henry Rollo (Riff Raff), Stellar Perry (Usherette/Magenta), Jones and Khoo to compensate.
Sadly Myf Warhurst as the Narrator had a tricky night. The popular radio and TV personality managed to cope instantly with a heckler who rudely, but not inaccurately, suggested she wasn’t in her comfort zone. Her repartee skills are good but not what’s required. The Narrator might appear to be reading; he or she shouldn’t sound like it.
Over at the Lyric in Pyrmont Hairspray bubbled over with high spirits. It’s an adorable puppy of a show with a bouncy score from Marc Shaiman and an impeccable message. It’s 1962 and Tracy Turnblad, pleasingly plump and full of vim and zest, wants to dance on TV’s Corny Collins show and to see it integrated. Oh, and to win the love of heartthrob Link Larkin. A show that says no to racism and yes to body positivity: who couldn’t love something like that?
If only life were really that easy. Oh well, we can all dream. Newcomer Carmel Rodrigues was a charmer as Tracy and Shane Jacobson played her mother Edna with loving warmth and care. The role, traditionally taken by a man, needs a delicate touch and had it from Jacobson. Asabi Goodman as Motormouth Maybelle raised the roof with the stirring protest song I Know Where I’ve Been, which went some way towards reminding us the struggle is far from over.
What to say about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? It’s a superficial piece of fluff; essentially a series of skits, each in a different musical style, based on a story from that well-known comic text Genesis. As with Rocky Horror there’s a Narrator – much needed here to give some idea of what’s going on – and Paulini did the honours with spark and great pipes. Less persuasive was Euan Fistrovic Doidge’s self-regarding Joseph, singing with an American accent while all around him sounded vaguely Australian, or perhaps Cockney. All part of the mish-mash that is this feather-light piece of Rice and Lloyd-Webber juvenilia. They would go on to much, much greater things than this. But Joseph has an audience, which is why it keeps returning. To each his, her or their own.
Rocky Horror is booking in Sydney to April 1, Hairspray is booking to April 2 and Joseph is booking to April 16.