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.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it’s less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.

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.

An indie theatre mini-festival

Delectable Shelter, The Reginald, Seymour Centre, August 13. Fireface, ATYP Under the Wharf, Sydney, August 14. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Factory Floor, Marrickville, August 15

I HAD the interesting – and unique – experience this week of having an invitation to the theatre withdrawn. I was to have reviewed, for The Australian, visiting US music-comedy show Blue Man Group, now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Its producer, Rodney Rigby, decided he didn’t wish to provide me with a complimentary ticket. I go into this in a little more detail on my DJ’s Diary page on this blog, but mention it here because I rearranged my week in light of this event. Instead of seeing Blue Man Group on Wednesday I decided to see independent company Stories Like These’s Fireface, by Marius Von Mayenburg. The night before I’d gone to the tiny Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre to see The Hayloft Project’s Delectable Shelter; the following night  – last night – I was at Marrickville’s The Factory Floor for the Australian premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. BBAJ is a deliciously dishevelled musical about, yes, the seventh president of the US.

So: three nights, three independent companies, three small and endearing theatre spaces and three reminders of the imaginative reach of theatre made outside the mainstream. It was like having my own little indie theatre festival – an event that could be replicated by Sydneysiders this weekend, and indeed would have to be replicated this weekend, as Delectable Shelter and Fireface end tomorrow. You could start off tomorrow at 2pm with Fireface, see Delectable Shelter at 8pm tomorrow, and then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at 5pm Sunday. The latter does run until September 1, but two shows don’t stack up as a mini-festival, do they?

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

You may even divine some (very broad) connections between the three pieces, part of the joy of seeing them in close proximity. In Fireface a family is destroyed; in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson there is wholesale slaughter of a continent’s original inhabitants (sound familiar?); in Delectable Shelter the entire world is imperilled. And further joy: the productions could not be more dissimilar.

Fireface is apprehended as if by flickering light. In the space of 100 minutes a multitude of short scenes burst into life and are quickly snuffed out. But we get the picture clearly enough. Kurt (Darcy Brown) is an unexploded bomb, ever more unstable as he rejects his parents (played by James Lugton and Lucy Miller) and gets inappropriately close to his sister Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson), who understands too late the extent to which she is playing with fire by aligning herself with Kurt. Except for a scene in which Kurt and Olga poeticise an adventure they have in a factory, Fireface is claustrophically enclosed within the family. The apparently ordinary, middle-class home is posited as a place of torment and disgust, and one is reminded with a shiver of the horrors that such places can hide. Brown is extraordinarily good but Irwin-Simpson is one-dimensional and unconvincing, which diminishes the horror of Luke Rogers’s production. But certainly worth seeing.

Delectable Shelter is a slightly over-extended apocalyptic fable but so much fun that writer/director Benedict Hardie is forgiven. The world has been so badly damaged that the only hope for human survival is for a lucky few to take refuge in underground shelters, wait for, oh, three and a half centuries, work hard at repopulating, and try again up on the surface. We soon realise that the chosen are very few in number indeed – five, to be exact – and obviously they are rich and white. Except for a group of Chinese people on a space station.

With this tiny gene pool responsible for humanity’s future the omens are not auspicious. It’s clear it would take more than a nuclear winter to rid the world of privilege, xenophobia, religious fervour, sexual politics and the apparently unquenchable desire for power. Yesse Spence, Simone Page Jones, Jolyon James, Brendan Hawke and Andrew Broadbent are all wonderful and as a bonus intersperse the action with 1980s pop songs performed a cappella in the manner of sacred music. A further treat is Claude Marcos’s dazzling design, brilliantly lit by Lucy Birkinshaw.

It’s hard to understand why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should ever have been considered a sensible choice to take to a Broadway theatre, where it appeared relatively briefly after being performed Off-Broadway in 2010. It is no Once, the gentle love story that won a Tony Award for best musical last year. BBAJ is a raucous grunge musical that presents Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States and founder of the Democratic Party, as a deeply flawed but super charismatic rock star; the guy who put the “man” into manifest destiny. Did I saw deeply flawed? Jackson ruthlessly drove Indian nations from their lands and if they wouldn’t go, they were slaughtered. “We totally know you were here first. We don’t give a shit,” he says exuberantly. Was he a great president or a genocidal murderer – you decide, dude!

Writers Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) manically elide early 19th century American politics with those of the present day (the show is performed in modern slacker dress). Taxes, big government, election stealing, conservative thinking – “It’s morning in America” – and a host of other references are slyly inserted into the roiling mix of comedy, political satire and song. Attention has to be paid to a piece that throws in Alexis de Toqueville, a funny song about metaphor, a bitter version of Ten Little Indians and a whole load of early American presidents (Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams) with zero explication.

The cult of personality in politics is depicted with the kind of vim and zest that apparently got Jackson elected way back then and which persists to this day and not only in the US. Australian political parallels will be noted. All of this is very good indeed and happens at breakneck speed under Craig Stewart’s direction. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is over in a bouncy 90 minutes, although it would be an even stronger piece with a few excisions. Jackson is seen in Injun-killing or betraying mode rather too many times.

Squabbalogic’s no-frills show (set Sean Minahan, lighting Mikey Rice) is just right for the piece. The excellent band is up the back and the hard-working actors up the front, there are some fairy lights on the ceiling, a generally brothel-red glow throughout, some bits and bobs around the place and that’s that. Peter Meredith (Andrew Jackson) anchors the show forcefully and Jay James-Moody stands out in an array of characters. The singing, by and large, is pretty ordinary, and the use of microphones erratic and therefore puzzling. Nevertheless, Squabbalogic has come up trumps by giving the Australian premiere of this work. Fascinatingly the company is going to follow up with another premiere, the revised version of Carrie the Musical.  It’s impressive programming.

If you were to see these three shows, you would have to spend no more than $120 for the lot. Just as a point of comparison, top price for Blue Man Group on a Saturday night is $150.

Fireface, final performances tomorrow (Saturday August 17) at 2pm and 7.30pm. Delectable Shelter, final performances tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ends September 1.