Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.

Carrie the Musical

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15.

YOU want to talk about a Broadway flop? Carrie the Musical will have to work harder. We read in yesterday’s The New York Times of investors reeling at the news of the closing announcement for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Yes, the show has been running since November 2010, but that span includes an unprecedented number of previews and the weekly running costs are so high that in recent months Spider-Man has struggled to cover costs. The loss is projected to be $US60 million.

The 1988 version of Carrie the Musical – the current Sydney production is of the 2012 revision, which had a short Off-Broadway run – lost about $US7 million or $US8 million, depending on who you believe. It’s large amount to be sure, and Carrie had only five performances after the preview period. Not a success by any means, but the standard-bearer for Broadway flops? It does seem unfair. It’s as if the subject-matter of Carrie spilled over into life. There are many nerds, geeks and perceived failures around, but when the brutal in-crowd decides to home in on one target, that individual gets to be the universal punching bag. Why, there’s even a book called Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, by Ken Mandelbaum. (It’s a most entertaining read; I recommend it.)

Before getting to Squabbalogic’s production, it’s worth revisiting some of the Great White Way’s disasters just to put things into perspective. As you’ll see I think even in revised form Carrie the Musical has only intermittent merits, but it wasn’t a bad decision by Squabbalogic  to stage it. There is much love among avid music-theatre fans for something with Carrie’s history and Squabbalogic is a gutsy little company with an eye to provocative and unusual projects (such as its most recent show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson).

In January this year The New Yorker‘s Michael Shulman did an entertaining round-up of opinion about which musical deserves the title of worst flop. There were many candidates, including Into the Light, a 1986 musical about the Shroud of Turin (nominated by Paul Rudnik). Frank Rich, The New York Times’s chief theatre critic from 1980 to 1993, says Carrie was far from the worst, and so bad it was almost good. In fact, he described it in his review as “a typical music-theatre botch”. (Rich’s Carrie review was, however, considered a key reason for the show’s very brief tenure on Broadway.) Rich likes Legs Diamond as a strong candidate for best worst. Michael Riedel of The New York Post cites Senator Joe, about Joe McCarthy. He says: “It ran exactly a performance and a half – they closed it at intermission, if I’m not mistaken.” He says his favourite fiasco is the first preview of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark and its three and a half hour first act.

As I mention it below in my Squabbalogic review, I need to point out that Rich describes the 1983 Moose Murders as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. Mind you, he was writing this in 1994 just after departing the theatre critics’ chair. He may well have seen worse as a civilian in the succeeding 20 years. Nevertheless, he did use it as a point of comparison when reviewing the original Carrie the Musical.

Another musical to get the Rich treatment was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, unloved by him and many others on its premiere in 1981 (it lasted 16 performances). How wonderful to report that the Menier Chocolate Factory revival in London this year was a big hit, and it’s been possible to see the results in cinema screenings this month around the country.

But back to Carrie the Musical and the Squabbalogic production. What follows is the review that appeared in The Australian on November 18, with a couple of expansions.

Hilary Cole at the climax of Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole at the climax of Squabbalogic’s Carrie the Musical. Photo: Michael Francis

SMALL, smart, ambitious company Squabbalogic makes a gallant but doomed case for Carrie, a musical that, as any aficionado of the genre knows, has a fraught history. As such it is catnip to the cognoscenti. That’s just the way it works.

In 1988 the original musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel was a flop, despite the participation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – or perhaps that was part of the problem. Anyway, it got hammered by critics, chiefly the one who mattered most, Frank Rich of The New York Times. The Butcher of Broadway mentioned Carrie in the same breath as the notorious Moose Murders. (For the record, the 1983 Moose Murders closed the night it opened, and was described by New York magazine’s John Simon as looking as if it were staged by “a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin”.)

Job done. Blood is a central motif in Carrie and the sharks smelled it. The show didn’t last a week.

But unlike its heroine, a girl with telekinetic powers oppressed beyond endurance by bullying schoolmates and her manically religious mother, Carrie the Musical wouldn’t die. It was revived as an Off-Broadway chamber piece last year and it’s this version we see from Squabbalogic.

Despite the tinkering Carrie unfortunately remains a misfit, saddled with a wonky flashback structure, odd tonal shifts and a score (by Michael Gore) that only intermittently gets the blood pumping, if you’ll forgive me. The bigger problems are a book (Lawrence D. Cohen) that flattens all the secondary characters and lyrics (Dean Pitchford) that too often resemble the motto for today: “What does it cost to be kind?” The song Unsuspecting Hearts is mind-altering drivel in itself and in its relation to the drama.

Most fatally Carrie the Musical has the weightless, sketchy feel of a piece that just knows the audience members will be familiar with the influential 1976 Brian de Palma film so they can fill in the texture and detail themselves.

Director Jay James-Moody, to his credit, plays with a straight bat where it may have been tempting to camp things up as a diversionary tactic. Cohen told The New York Times last year the creative team emphatically did not want a Rocky Horror version, and James-Moody has played fair. As it is, though, his limited means unsparingly illuminate the show’s weak spots. (Mind you, on Broadway in 1988 a big budget did exactly the same thing. Discuss.)

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

The production is best – in fact, very strong indeed – in the series of mother-daughter scenes where the themes of sexual awakening, religious fervour and a heart-breakingly misplaced sense of exceptionalism collide with a thunderclap. Margi de Ferranti (Margaret) and newcomer Hilary Cole (Carrie) are mesmerising and have the richest music and lyrics by far. And then it’s back to the depressingly one-note (and over-amplified) shenanigans of Carrie’s classmates, made tolerable, just, by the fine singing of Adele Parkinson (good girl Sue), Rob Johnson (good boy Tommy) and Prudence Holloway (bitch Chris).

There is excellent work from Mark Chamberlain’s small band and Sean Minahan’s evocative, impressionistic design is another plus. A veil needs to be drawn over Shondelle Pratt’s clumsy, uninspired choreography.

Squabbalogic does an honourable job of dealing with the incendiary ending, albeit needing a bit of audience indulgence. It’s not the production’s fault, however, that Carrie the Musical then sputters to a close. Remember the film’s heart-stopping ending? It’s nothing like that.

Until November 30.