The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

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Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

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Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

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Les Miserables

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, July 23 matinee

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

When Les Misérables premiered at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company, reviews were decidedly mixed and the planned transfer to the West End was in doubt.

But queues began to storm the box office. The people had spoken. Nearly 30 years on, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s stirring musical is still running in the West End and has been seen by around 65 million people in 300 cities around the world. (The original Australian production premiered in Sydney in December 1987).

To celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary, Mackintosh decided to produce a brand new staging of the show with new orchestrations. It’s that version that recently opened at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre – and utterly spectacular it is too, with production values of the highest order.

For the uninitiated, Les Mis is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Sung-through in operatic fashion, it is epic in its sweep as it tells the story of Jean Valjean, who after serving 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving niece, breaks his parole in order to break free from the shackles of his convict past and lead a reformed life.

Reborn as a pillar of society and a kind man with a strong social conscience, he is hunted down across the years by the unforgiving policeman Javert. Unfolding against a backdrop of terrible inequality and suffering, leading to a student uprising in Paris, the story embraces themes of class struggle, political idealism, love and self-sacrifice.

 

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean. Photo: Matt Murphy

The original production famously used a revolving stage in order to keep the sprawling action moving fluidly across numerous locations and characters, and across time (1815 to 1832).

The revolve was so much part of the original concept that I wondered what the show would be like without it. But the new staging is superb, with state-of-the technology and dramatic lighting allowing for seamless scene changes.

Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with set design by Matt Kinley, substantial scenic elements appear in the blink of an eye, while wonderful, moody projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself help conjure different settings, lend extra atmosphere and create special effects – the convict ship in the opening scene, the underground tunnels of the sewer through which Valjean carries the injured student Marius, and Javert’s jump from the bridge are all brilliantly evoked with projected images.

Paule Constable’s lighting is a vital part of the equation, creating a dark, shadowy world in which white light sculpts the barricades or shines on the dying. The effect is one of painterly chiaroscuro, while the darkness renders many of the scene changes invisible.

Christine Rowland has developed Andreane Neofitou’s original costumes, which add the odd splash of colour to a generally somber palette.

Simon Gleeson is superb as Valjean. His transformation from starving, desperate convict to respected gentleman and loving father to Cosette is brilliantly done and he ages convincingly, helped by the costuming and wigs. As for his singing he is in glorious voice, nowhere more so than with a sublime, heartbreaking rendition of Bring Him Home.

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee is his match as the implacable Javert, turning in a commanding performance vocally and dramatically as he stalks the stage, ramrod straight, exuding a powerful intensity.

Patrice Tipoki finds all the broken-hearted fragility in the destitute Fantine, her lovely voice soaring with a spine-tingling belt. Kerrie Anne Greenland is also a knockout as the streetwise Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius yet feisty to the last.

Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin (covering for the injured Lara Mulcahy) are hilarious as the inn-keeping Thenardiers. Both have powerful pipes and a sure-fire sense of comedy, providing welcome relief from the darkness of the rest of the story. The way Barron Martin attacks a baguette while dismissing her husband’s manhood, or tilts her head coquettishly when Valjean appears to rescue the young Cosette is priceless, while Ashley brings a wicked gleefulness to Thenardier’s underhand shenanigans. Together they are a grotesquely funny double act.

Euan Doidge has a sweet but fairly light voice, which in this vocal company sounds a bit underpowered, but he is endearing as Marius, coming across as a boyish innocent in the first flush of first love. And he sings Empty Chairs at Empty Tables beautifully.

Chris Durling as Enjolras and Emily Langridge as Cosette don’t yet radiate all the charisma they might but their performances will doubtless grow, and the ensemble is fierce.

From the very opening bars, this new production lifts you up and sweeps you along. The combined power of the story, lyrics and music, complemented by splendid staging and performances, is dramatically thrilling and deeply moving. By the end, I was undone emotionally – and I was not alone.

Les Misérables is currently booking until November 9 in Melbourne. It opens in Perth on January 13 and then in Sydney in March.