On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.

Raise the roof

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 22

GLORY hallelujah! Miracle City has been resurrected. It is alive and it is well, if a little in need of fine-tuning.

An explanation for those not steeped in music-theatre lore: in 1996 Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s show had a short season at Sydney, Theatre Company and it was good. But for various reasons it wasn’t revived and soon acquired quasi-religious status. But to every thing there is a season and Miracle City has found a natural home at Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats and committed music-theatre audience. The small, bare-bones space is perfect for Miracle City’s setting, a regional Tennessee television station from which the Truswell family conducts its evangelical Christian ministry and tries to raise money for an ill-considered theme park.

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Hankin’s rudimentary set of a sparkly curtain, a few monitors and some backstage bits and bobs strikes exactly the right note. The Truswells have a long-standing ministry but they are nowhere near the league of the Reverend Millard Sizemore, a bully with a private jet, oily authority and vast sense of entitlement. Rick Truswell doesn’t lack for ambition, however, and has grandiose plans, advertised regularly during the family’s Sunday program. Naturally funds are required. From their unprepossessing studio the family intersperses its home-spun homilies and rousing songs with calls for donations that will enable the completion of the theme park they have called Miracle City. “First you pray, then you play,” say the ads, but before that can happen someone has to pay. Rick Truswell needs money, he needs it badly, and, as it transpires, will do anything to get it.

In real time – just under 90 minutes – the veneer of good cheer and good works shatters. Idolised men are shown not only to have feet of clay but to be viciously corrupt and a woman married at 16 finds the strength to be her own person. (The echoes of A Doll’s House are pleasing as the woman is played by Blazey Best, who recently starred in an updated version of Ibsen’s play for Belvoir.)

With their exercise of iron-clad patriarchial control, Rick Truswell (Mike McLeish) and his mentor Sizemore (Peter Kowitz) could be old-school Stalinists, except with way, way better music. Which is where Miracle City really nails it. Lambert and Enright’s songs are heaven, absolutely crucial to the show’s tightrope-walk between satire and seduction. There are up-tempo exhortations to raise the roof, share the load and to take up arms until the war is won, and there is a strong temptation to leap to one’s feet and join right in.

The country-and-gospel score hits bull’s-eyes again and again. Marika Aubrey, Hilary Cole, Esther Hannaford and Josie Lane are all in knockout vocal form as they deliver the effortless mix of shiny-eyed faith and glossy showbiz. Hannaford, who plays the troubled Bonnie-Mae, is magnificent in the show’s standout number I’ll Hold On, and Aubrey leads a storming Raise the Roof, but really everyone gets a strong vocal moment. Who knew Best (Lora-Lee Truswell) could sing like that? She’s a revelation, as is young Cameron Holmes as baby of the family Ricky-Bob. Keep him on your radar. Jason Kos as floor manager of the Truswells’ show rounds out this highly appealing cast.

The difficulty is in managing the shift from clean-living serenity to ugly reality in such a short time. Director Darren Yap has allowed McLeish and Kowitz, both charismatic, to become too obviously villainous and therefore less chilling than they might be. But to be fair, the piece probably needed a few more drafts to enrich overly emblematic characters. Rick Truswell has the usual reclamation story (he was a no-account wrong-doer until he met Lora-Lee when she was just a girl), Aubrey is the tough, astringent gal who can look after herself, Hannaford the woman with a painful past and Lane the adoring disciple who sees nothing. Cole has a little more to play with as Loretta, the teenager with a combustible mix of rebellion and naivety, and Best has the most complex path to tread as she touchingly shows the illusions of 20 years being stripped away in moments.

Best is an intensely sympathetic actor who negotiates the swift transition from subservience to vulnerability to defiance with appealing dignity, willing us to believe in a situation that doesn’t entirely ring true.

The dramaturgy isn’t perfect, but this is nevertheless an absorbing evening created by a lavishly talented group of people. Apart from designer Hankin, the composer leads a terrific five-piece band, Kelley Abbey choreographed, Roger Kirk did the costumes and Hugh Hamilton the lights. These are people normally seen on far bigger projects. But then this is Miracle City. Back at last.

Miracle City ends November 16

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 2

The Drowsy Chaperone

 Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 18.

HE has no name other than Man in Chair, this cardigan-wearing musicals tragic, for he is Everyman, screaming inside at the bombast of the modern sung-through show – and yes, he means you, Andrew Lloyd Webber – while maintaining an exterior of mild exasperation. Well, he is every man or every woman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune they can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short.

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Nestled within The Drowsy Chaperone is such a musical: The Drowsy Chaperone. (You will search in vain for it in any theatre database, as it is a work of fiction created for The Drowsy Chaperone, although for the purposes of the evening treated as if it were a real show. Obviously The Drowsy Chaperone – the host show, as it were – is also a work of fiction, but operating on a different plane. What fun.)

There’s a phrase people often use about the theatre, and particularly about the musical theatre. It takes you out of yourself, they say, meaning that for a few hours you forget your cares and get caught up in a world more carefree, more glamorous, more vibrant, more everything than the one you’re going home to. That’s what Man in Chair wants, and here the idea is given literal form.

As the lights go down Man in Chair starts confiding to the audience his decidedly unfavourable views on the current theatre. What does he consider a good show? That would be The Drowsy Chaperone, a 1920s piece of fairy floss that, he acknowledges, is perhaps not perfect but does exactly what he needs it to do. Allow him to illustrate.

Within moments of the needle hitting his treasured vinyl cast record of The Drowsy Chaperone, its characters burst into Man in Chair’s room. As he eagerly watches the action unfold he gives an aficionado’s gloss on the plot, the lyrics, the actors playing the roles and, in little snippets, his own life. No longer is Man in Chair in his dreary apartment. He is intensely engaged with the show.

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone takes place on the wedding day of Janet Van de Graff, a 1920s theatre star leaving the stage to be married, much to the chagrin of her producer. Can Janet be persuaded to change her mind? Helping things along are heavies disguised as pastry chefs, a lavishly accented Latin lothario, an aviatrix, a vaudeville act, a big tap number and a resolution that just falls from the sky. Adding some spice are the shenanigans of Janet’s dipsomaniac and therefore chronically sleepy chaperone.

It is as silly and formulaic as it sounds, which is where The Drowsy Chaperone shamelessly has it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Man in Chair yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ’em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Squabbalogic’s production captures the dichotomy immaculately, and – as Sweet Charity did before it – makes triumphant use of the tiny Hayes Theatre Co space. On Broadway the show opened out to become the extravaganza Man in Chair sees in his mind’s eye as he listens to the music, and the glittering production values meant Man in Chair’s favourite musical actually came up rather well. At the Hayes there is no escaping the fact that we are in Man in Chair’s generic city apartment. The musical’s flaws – which Man in Chair admits exist – loom larger.

Interestingly, this turns out not to be any kind of problem, due mainly to a pivotal piece of casting. Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a very fine team but his most successful choice was the assignment of himself to the part of Man in Chair. It was a great call; James-Moody is tremendous. He is very young for the role but that also fails to be a problem. James-Moody is too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen. Instead there is unexpected poignancy in seeing the importance Man in Chair places on this extremely minor piece. The casting probably wouldn’t work in a huge theatre, but then that’s exactly where we are not.

There are little windows in Man in Chair’s apartment (splendid design by Lauren Peters) that give glimpses of the world he has shut out. With his eager face, intelligent high forehead, wry self-awareness and irony-tinged delivery, James-Moody really makes you hope Man in Chair isn’t setting himself up for the fate of an actor whose demise he describes. It involves a solitary death and a poodle.

In every department – direction, performance, design, choreography, music (a terrific six-piece band) – there is complete understanding of the show’s style and wit. It seems a little unfair to single individuals out from the terrific ensemble, but here goes. Extra bouquets to Monique Salle, who is not only a zesty Trix the Aviatrix but choreographed imaginatively within very tight limits; Hilary Cole, whose charmingly self-regarding Janet could not be further removed from her tormented Carrie of last year (also for Squabbalogic); Michele Lansdown’s seedily glamorous Chaperone; and Tom Sharah’s lustily sung Adolpho, whose intelligence is located well south of his head.

The Drowsy Chaperone ends on April 6.

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.