Despite star talent and cult appeal, Jason Robert Brown's 2001 musical fails to appeal in this new production by Vic Theatre Company
Vic Theatre Company are a newish outfit in Melbourne, dedicated to unearthing relatively obscure or niche musicals that otherwise wouldn’t get a guernsey on main stages. They shot out of the gates with a Green Room award-winning production of Loving Repeating in 2015 and their 2016 production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was aided enormously by a top-notch cast.
Their newest production also benefits from a terrific cast: Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Josh Piterman (Light in the Piazza). They play Cathy and Jamie, an actor and writer respectively, and the show tracks their relationship from courtship to bust up. The difference is that the story is told backwards from her perspective and forwards from his. The perspectives meet in the middle of the show, at the moment of their engagement. It’s one of those nifty ideas on paper that fails to deliver in practice.
The original production had the two performers singing what are basically musical monologues separately and alone on stage. Director Chris Parker chooses to bring the other actor in for these numbers, a silent witness to the ecstatic serenading of the early parts of the relationship and bitter venting of the latter. It doesn’t help, as there is nothing for the non-singing actor to do but look on forlornly. It also highlights the text’s central problem: there is nothing interactive going on between these two fairly insufferable people, no sense of why or even how they function as a couple.
Musically, the whole thing sounds like it was composed on a piano; there is a busyness in the orchestration that fails to camouflage the uniformity of the melodies, the structural sameness of every song. Occasionally, Brown produces what is ostensibly a parody of a musical style – ‘A Summer in Ohio’ is a country music number at heart – but then flattens it into musical theatre cliché. In fact, all the numbers flatten into musical theatre cliché.
And then there is the problem of the characterisations. It seems painfully clear that Brown based his show on his own failed relationship, because Cathy is basically a whiny, envious bitch who resents her partner’s amazing and meteoric rise to fame and critical acclaim while she languishes in talentless obscurity. It’s only when we hear Jamie reading from his novel at a public event that we realise Brown’s pretensions. The excerpt is so godawful – his great insights are that his wife’s belly swells when she’s pregnant and over time her eyes start to wrinkle – that it initially feels like it must be a parody. But it isn’t a parody; this is the author’s idea of the Great American Novel. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
As Cathy, Hunt-Ballard tries her hardest to inject some warmth and charm into what is basically a thankless, some might say sexist, role. (It seems significant that another actor with enormous reserves of sardonic likability, Anna Kendrick, was cast in the recent film version.) She’s quite wonderful, but the part is so weak it feels like she’s climbing up an avalanche. Piterman is not as good, especially in the emotionally overwrought ‘Nobody Needs to Know’, but he does manage to pull off the doe-eyed exuberance of his early scenes and has a lovely voice.
This production, with a serviceable set by Daniel Harvey and terrific musical direction by Daniel Puckey, isn’t bad. A director can’t be expected to spin gold from straw, but Parker’s additions and solutions don’t really add or solve anything. This show is clearly a pre-911 piece; it’s self-absorbed and inward-looking, and fails to resonate beyond the rather boring lives of its claustrophobic characters. It carries more than a faint whiff of schadenfreude, has little to no insight, and probably deserves the obscurity from which it’s been plucked by this otherwise promising new company.