Theatre is dead, not

The Drowsy Chaperone was at the Playhouse, Melbourne Arts Centre, from January 18 to February 20.
The King and I was at the State Theatre, Melbourne Arts Centre, from July 14 to July 25.
Mary Poppins opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, on July 29.

“Theatre is dead.” About me in the dark a thousand elderly bums wriggled contentedly into their seats. We didn’t believe him, and some of us giggled. The house lights had gone down in Melbourne’s Playhouse for a performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. Though the stage was black we all recognised the voice. We knew he wasn’t serious and besides, we had each paid nearly a hundred dollars to see him—it worked out at about a dollar a minute. In the dark you could feel the audience’s good will towards the voice’s owner. It’s a familiar feeling in a theatre when someone we like and are used to seeing in our living rooms steps onto a stage. Geoffrey Rush was onstage and we all meant to like him.

The Drowsy Chaperone dropped brassily into this year’s Melbourne Theatre Company season from Canada and the USA with five Tony Awards and seven Drama Desk Awards. Top heavy with publicity and stars, the new musical won an extended season in Melbourne. The MTC beefed up the cast with familiar names including Geoffrey Rush in the lead and work for Rhonda Burchmore, Shane Jacobson (the star of Kenny) and Robyn Nevin.

Rush played the “Man in the Chair”. The reason for the name was obvious when the lights came up over Dale Ferguson’s opening set of the Man’s seedy apartment. He may not have liked theatre but he certainly loved musicals—old musicals, and he loved talking about them. One of his favourites was a supposed 1920s piece of musical nonsense called The Drowsy Chaperone. He played his much loved vinyl record for us and the musical came alive about him. The dreary set was ripped apart to become the ever-changing décor of a resuscitated extravaganza. Actors entered through his wardrobe, the set came apart before us and was rebuilt. The new 1920s pastiche had a typically nonsensical plot; at one part a scene from a completely different musical was played when the Man turned his supposed LP for the second side. Geoffrey Rush gave a seamless performance in a not very important role. When he talked banteringly to the audience was it the Man in the Cardigan talking? Or was it Rush?

The Man stopped and started the action, replayed a favourite piece, even suffered an electricity blackout.

The musical numbers, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, were a clever recasting of the 1920s. Very clever, too clever. If 1920s musicals were deliciously no-minded, this production was too clever, too knowing, too postmodernly sophisticated. It’s a flaw the author seems proud of:

We knew, though, that we couldn’t just present a musical of another era, a fake musical. That wouldn’t be enough. We needed to add some kind of framework, some sort of perspective on it. We realised the value of having a very human, recognisable, iconic character, who presents the audience’s perspective on the show we were watching, which would allow us to comment on it, to deconstruct it, sort of a more post-modern approach.

A great formula for writing a theatre textbook; less successful in composing a musical. Afflicted with the disease of our time—relativism—it had obvious appeal to the Tony’s judges. The observations the author made we already knew; audiences are consenting adults, they can work these things out themselves—that’s what audiences do.

The characterisation of the narrator was a clever and witty cliché with smart talk about musicals, good and yet unsatisfactory. I didn’t come out whistling a happy tune, or more in tune with our culture, looking for the CD to buy. Walking away it was hard to remember, or care, what it had all been about or recall the music. The best of those 1920 musicals may have had loopy books but they also had seriously memorable music. Still hungry, I was left wanting to see a classic revival of a classic and they don’t get more classic than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.

It was staged by the Production Company, a formidable Melbourne-based group which is now twelve years old and stages musical theatre for short runs. With major funding from the Pratt Foundation, whose Chairman is Jeanne Pratt. The day after I enjoyed this performance the Sunday Age filled a large part of its front page with a scathing exposé of the life and loves of the late Richard Pratt.

The play was almost worth going to just for the pleasure of seeing the curtain at Melbourne’s State Theatre at the Arts Centre. When that lovely thing went up it revealed Orchestra Victoria parked onstage—grouped on either side of the playing area. Kathryn Sproul’s set designs were simple and striking. Long hanging cloths and elegant lighting transformed the stage. Where The Drowsy Chaperone was arch and knowing The King and I was its tuneful and loving self.

Anna was played by Chelsea Gibb and the King by Juan Jackson. Slight disappointment with Chelsea Gibb was probably my fault. Looking forward to the production, I made the mistake of listening to the old Broadway cast album with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. Chelsea Gibb is a far better singer than Lawrence ever was, but it was Lawrence’s phrasing that got into my head. When Lawrence chirps “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” the line “I am from a civilised land called Wales” ends with her emphasising “Wales” with an emphatic, if squeaky, rising inflection which swells with pride. Similarly, “Toads, toads, all of your people are toads” was manhandled on the vinyl by Lawrence, and tastefully sung by Gibb. Viva dead diva—even if she couldn’t sing.

Among the lasting glories of Rodgers and Hammerstein in performance are the musical gifts they give their secondary characters. The great songs gift-wrapped for supporting role players must sometimes have driven stars wild. Seemingly minor characters open their mouths and bring brilliance to music that we may have overlooked. As Lady Thiang, Silvie Paladino’s “Something Wonderful” was wonderful. The lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, played by Emily Xiao Wang and Adrian Li Donni, were stunning with “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”.

For Lun Tha’s narration to the ballet of the Bangkok version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, the stage became an MGM musical set awash with the lavish, garish, gorgeous colours of 1950s Technicolor. It was imaginative, rather brilliant, and totally engrossing. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, set designer Kathryn Sproul, costume designer Kim Bishop, and choreographer Alana Scanlan provided a memorable treat performed by a capable ensemble.

For the finale the set design wholeheartedly embraced the Rodgers and Hammerstein sentimentality that most modern productions would run from. The cool productions of Trevor Nunn, seen internationally, have cast a long shadow over R&H restagings. Juan Jackson’s King was dying. This did seem a trifle odd as His shirtless Majesty had seemed in the best of health—he would certainly have won the title of Mr Siam, circa 1860. Perhaps His Majesty’s ill health had been brought on by an overdose of steroids? Anyway, there had been strips of cloth hanging from the flies during the performance. Each long piece carried a section of a giant image of the Buddha. As the dying king reclined tastefully on a sofa upstage with his court about him those strips of material were rearranged and brought together to join the disparate sections into a complete portrait of a weeping Buddha. Perfect scenic sentiment to accompany the music.

Anna is now in her fifty-ninth year and, if possible, she is even more of a prig than last time I saw her—which should make her a feminine heroine of the new century. Another woman, practically perfect, has also arrived in Melbourne.

At Her Majesty’s the foyer before the performance of Mary Poppins was ghastly. It was full of over-indulged monsters and their parents eating, drinking, buying. The jaws of the little pests never stopped. The theatre sold vast quantities of Coke and potato crisps—they empty the crisps from noisy crinkle packets into quieter cardboard boxes. This was a preview performance some days before the first night but already the merchandise booths had sold out of some items. On a good day you can buy T-shirts, books (both pop-up and normal), CDs, musical snow globes, carpet bag purses, gift cards, Supercal latte mugs, charm bracelets, dolls, carpet bag key rings, magnets, lapel badges, caps, ornaments, and umbrellas (in two sizes) with parrot heads—and lots of people did.

Inside the auditorium the theatre provided the littlest monsters with an extra cushion to raise them higher. There is also a popular confectionery stall built into the side of the theatre beside the stage. At interval ice-cream sellers sell frozen things on sticks from old-fashioned boxes suspended from their necks.

Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book, popped onstage before the overture and said a few words. The evening, it seemed, was a benefit in aid of a children’s charity. Somewhere around the theatre Cameron Mackintosh was surely watching a computer screen counting the house for him as the ushers scanned ticket barcodes.

And what was it like enduring a new musical surrounded by this lumpy audience of chomping, chewing, drinking, crunching, talking, mess of suburban inhumanity? It was brilliant.

I would guess that many of these children and their parents had never seen the inside of a theatre. What we saw onstage was something to which they gave themselves entirely. Mackintosh is one of the great theatre producers of any time. Much of Poppins comes from him and his knowledge and appreciation of what will draw group bookings and ensure those charter coaches will keep pulling up in the lights out front of Her Majesty’s for a long time to come. No wonder that Steven Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote and sang “Send in the Crowds” in his honour. The Drowsy Chaperone was produced by theatre sophisticates, Mary Poppins by a dreamer who knows how to please the crowds—and it shows.

The story is only partly based on the film and returns more to the books. The presentation has some of the numbers from the film and new songs and music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. There is a solid Australian cast: Philip Quast as the father George Banks, Marina Prior as his wife, and, a character not seen in the film, evil Miss Andrew by Judi Connelli. Verity Hunt-Ballard flew as Mary Poppins. Matt Lee, as Bert, led his tap shoeing chimney sweeps across the chimney tops of London then up the wall of the set and danced upside-down across the ceiling, then down the other side. The stage was hardly still. It was a magic box of trickery which changed almost every second. It was unrelenting and the audience adored what Mackintosh had made. These are theatre memories worth giving a new generation. While some may have delighted in the high-tech whiz-bang I had childhood memories of Christmas panto, and fantasies of being among the groundlings in Shakespeare’s theatre.

Every moment, so it seemed, there was some new marvel to take in and lots of music. The magic happens and the audience goes “wow”. At play’s end Mary Poppins takes flight out across the stalls, upwards past the dress circle, then up to the grand circle and then doesn’t come down. Sure, we all saw the strings, but the cheering was deafening and from the heart.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online

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