Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

King Kong, Robot Vs Art

King Kong, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, June 19; Robot Vs Art, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, June 20

WHAT’S wrong with this picture? It’s late in Act II of King Kong and Queenie van de Zandt, as Cassandra, is singing the show’s most stirring number, Rise. As she sings, a chorus swelling behind her – and van de Zandt was in tremendous voice on Wednesday evening – we are to envisage King Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building where, we know, he will be destroyed. The climax of King Kong, the extravagantly scaled new musical, is at hand.

But who is Cassandra that she gets the night’s prime position? She’s a character – a device, really – the show really, truly doesn’t need. This is no disrespect to van de Zandt, who is as accomplished a music theatre performer as you’ll ever meet. It’s a structural thing. Cassandra – the name is the giveaway – is there to be the voice of foreboding at the beginning of the piece when film producer Carl Denham (newcomer Adam Lyon) is embarking on his grandiose plans to go to Skull Island, home to Kong.  Cassandra is there to predict this will all come to a bad end. You don’t say …

Cassandra is given relatively little stage time, so at this late crucial point in King Kong the big anthemic number is sung by a character in whom there is absolutely no audience investment. Obviously she’s covering the set change that places Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. Obviously there should be more than that.

King Kong

Esther Hannaford and King Kong

King Kong is, should be, about nothing but the highest stakes, something the show’s one unequivocal success proves. King Kong – the beast, not the show – is utterly, extraordinarily, splendiferously magnificent. King Kong producer Global Creatures has given audiences a creature to inspire awe and pity; to marvel at and to weep over – or at least potentially. As operated by a group of puppeteers called the King’s men, Kong expresses feelings unmatched by any living thing on stage.

The body of Kong contains the key themes writ extremely large: colonisation, oppression, exploitation, migration, the outsider and, above all, devotion. The show touches on all this, albeit  too many times with an unnecessarily heavy hand, but hasn’t yet managed an effective balance between the characters the audience needs to care about and those it doesn’t. I longed for a scene on the boat back from Skull Island that would show Kong in captivity and starlet Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford) developing her compassion for him; without it Act II gets underway with the audience having to connect an awful lot of dots. On the other hand, I longed for savage cuts to be made to scenes featuring Carl Denham. The character is deeply unpleasant and Lyon lacks the adamantine charisma that can give an awful but seductive charm to such men.

Since King Kong’s premiere in Melbourne last Saturday night there has been interesting and fruitful discussion about whether it really is a musical, or a spectacular, or a new direction in theatre that takes the book musical, adds elements unknown in the golden era of the 1950s, and creates something new. That’s all good to talk about, but is a separate issue from the nitty-gritty of King Kong’s weaknesses. The flaws have nothing to do with genre. They have to do with logic, shape, rhythm, tone and character development.

And some of the dialogue is execrable, as if it’s what has remained after the scissors have been wielded over-enthusiastically to fit in more spectacle. (Craig Lucas, who is credited with the book, is a highly experienced and successful writer.) “I must be dreaming,” says Hannaford helpfully as scantily clad dancing girls emerge from nowhere on the Skull Island-bound ship for a fantasy scene. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely there’s a better way to signal this if you doubt the audience’s ability to get what’s happening. Such dead language, and there are many other examples, is entirely at odds with the originality of the piece’s visual and musical aspirations.

I loved the way the music mixed original songs (not all entirely memorable) with existing material, particularly when it included 1920s and 1930s references. There are brief snatches of Brother Can you Spare a Dime, I Wanna be Loved by You and the Lutheran hymn carol Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. There is stunning use made of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s Get Happy, given surreal treatment with traces of Weimar Republic-era desperate wit. As the escaping Kong starts his rampage, a line of platinum-blonde chorines keeps the show going: “Get ready for the judgment day,” they sing. Quite.

An eclectic approach is also taken to the show’s tone. There are traces of cheesy Saturday morning adventure flick, 1930s romantic comedy, futuristic sci-fi, camp send-up and early Dr Who – a hugely ambitious position that, I think, can only work if anchored by the strongest emotional through-line.

Hannaford and Chris Ryan, as Ann’s love interest Jack Driscoll, do their best with the insufficient time they have to connect deeply – and they’d be helped by a more dramatic setting for their falling-in-love dance scene. In a show so ear- and eye-poppingly decked out with son et lumiere they look quite lost and dull here. And Jack appeared to be singing about men killed while building the San Francisco bridge (que?), or did I get that wrong?

(On another matter relating to lyrics, does Cassandra really sing about people falling at the top of Act II? It was in a context that made me immediately think of September 11, 2001. Not sure that will be right for Broadway, should that be in the offing.)

King Kong needs a lot more work to achieve its goal of being the “timeless love story” it bills itself as, but gee, I hope it gets there. The big fella at its centre deserves it. All hail to Kong’s creators, who have given the huge creature expression, character and eloquent articulation. The puppeteers who animate Kong are involved in an intricate choreography that is entrancing in and of itself, but more pertinently they and the great wires that support Kong so visibly get right to the heart of the story. As men swarm over, around and under Kong there’s not only the excitement of his moving presence but a premonition of his subjugation. From the moment we first see Kong he’s already captive.

King Kong shows in Melbourne only. It is currently taking bookings through to October 13 for groups and August 18 for the general public.

Robot Vs Art, presented by Tamarama Rock Surfers

NOT in Melbourne, but from Melbourne, comes Travis Cotton’s surreally comic sci-fi morality tale Robot Vs Art. A bit like King Kong in some respects, at about a millionth of the budget. There’s even a bit of the early Dr Who vibe about it.

In a not-too-distant dystopian future, robots rule the earth of which humans have made such a hash. After some wholesale slaughter the men and women who remain are put to work as underground miners while the robots set about creating a weird kind of Eden. But then Executive Bot (Simon Maiden) has a mind to investigate this puzzling art stuff; stuff that apparently has some emotional value, whatever that is. Giles (Daniel Frederiksen) is a human who has done a bit of playwriting – cue many hilarious theatre in-jokes – and is charged with finding a way of getting art, and thus feeling, across to robots. This involves him working with unlikely thespians Claw Bot (Paul David Goddard) and Fembot (Natasha Jacobs).

Some of the message-making is pretty heavy-handed (honestly, the similarities to King Kong keep piling up) but the show is a delight. Rough and ready to the nth degree, packed with great jokes, performed with tremendous elan and with a nice twist at the end. Much recommended.

 Bondi Pavilion until July 6.