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.

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.