Love and Death and an American Guitar

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Steinman, you will almost certainly know many of his songs. He wrote Meatloaf’s epic Bat out of Hell, for starters, along with Total Eclipse of the Heart, Holding Out for a Hero, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

In his new cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Toby Francis picks up a red Fender Stratocaster and in the guise of Steinman gives voice to his songs, ambitions and frustrations. Chief among the latter are his bitter resentment at Meatloaf getting all the glory (and the money) and his angst at never getting his musical Neverland off the ground.

Francis, who wrote the show, has employed a clever structure in which he has Steinman talk through his ideas for Neverland – a dystopian take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in New York, which he is struggling to finish – as if pitching the show to potential producers.

Steinman did, in fact, begin his career in musical theatre, where his credits include writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind and music for Dance of the Vampires. In 1997, he held a workshop of Neverland, three songs from which were picked up by Meatloaf: Bat out of Hell, Heaven Can Wait, and The Formation of the Pack, which was re-titled All Revved Up With No Place to Go.

Francis begins his show with Steinman’s spoken rock song Love and Death and an American Guitar (later recorded as Wasted Youth) and from there launches into Bat Out of Hell.

With occasional support from guest singer Noni McCallum, he rips through many of Steinman’s hits, his rock tenor voice well suited to the material. The dialogue gives us a fascinating taste of Steinman’s career and the musical that Neverland might have been, as well as a keen sense of his disillusionment.

Directed by Neil Gooding with moody projections evoking the world of Neverland by production designer Lauren Peters, the show begs to be performed with a fierce, rocking live band but musical director Andrew Worboys does a good job on piano and synthesizer.

The three-performance season as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season ended on Sunday with Francis going down on bended knee to propose to Peters at the curtain call. What an encore!

The show deserves to make a return – and doubtless will.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Hayes Theatre Co, May 14

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

You can see why Tim Freedman’s songs appealed to playwright Alex Broun as the inspiration for a musical. Not only do they have beautiful melodies and pithy lyrics that ring emotionally true but a strong sense of narrative and character, written as they were about real people, places and incidents.

Broun co-wrote his new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You with Freedman (frontman of Sydney rock band The Whitlams) and uses 19 Whitlams classic including “No Aphrodisiac”, “Blow Up the Pokies”, “Keep the Light On”, “Beauty in Me” and the “Charlie” series.

Set in Newtown’s grungy pub scene, 20-year old Tom (Ross Chisari) arrives from Taree with a letter from his Mum, in search of Anton (Ian Stenlake) and Charlie (Scott Irwin), former members of a band in which his dead father Stewie (Toby Francis in flashback scenes) once played.

“Famous on three blocks” in Sydney’s inner west in their heyday, Anton and Charlie are now wrestling with demons and rapidly going to seed. Tom meets a girl called Beatrice (Erica Lovell) who is also searching for herself, having fled Mosman. The encounter between the four leads, predictably enough, to revelations from the past and the possibility of healing.

Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Hayes Theatre Co, there’s much to enjoy about the production. It’s well staged and performed, the band led by musical director Andrew Worboys is terrific and the songs are great, but Broun’s script is not strong enough for the show to really take off.

Broun draws on Freedman’s themes of male friendship, lost love, disappointment and emotional damage but the characters and plot aren’t developed enough at this point for the climax to convince.

The writing is often perfunctory and never quite rises above the feeling that scenes are contrived to fit the musical numbers. The meeting between Tom and Beatrice, in particular, is clichéd and glib. In fact, the entire story of Tom and Beatrice is far less interesting than the story of the band yet it’s fore-grounded. The scenes about the band – which are the best written and performed – are the ones where we feel ourselves being suddenly drawn in and wanting to know more.

Staged as if in a grotty inner-city pub, Jackson Browne’s set design (lit by Richard Neville) provides just the right vibe. There’s a band set-up on a high stage, backed by all kinds of signs. The stage moves backwards to create room in front of it for various other scenes with simple props sliding out from underneath. It’s a clever solution in the tiny venue.

The actors work hard to bring the show to life. Stenlake as the shambolic, hard-drinking Anton, now letting it all hang out, and Irwin as the pokies-addicted Charlie are particularly impressive, both acting-wise and vocally, the scenes between them some of the most moving.

In the short time that it has been operating, the Hayes has already proved itself an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene and it’s great to see them providing a launch pad for new local musicals like this. Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You still needs work but it’s well worth a look. There’s already much to enjoy about it and there’s plenty of potential for it to be honed into something even better.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 1. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 19

 

Independent Music Theatre: creating a new home for small-scale musicals and cabaret in Sydney

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

Yesterday’s announcement that a new, not-for-profit consortium of producers and organisations called Independent Music Theatre (IMT) is to run the Reginald Murphy Hall in Potts Point as a home for small-scale music theatre and cabaret has my heart singing.

It’s exciting news given the potential for the company to become an important and much-needed addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Currently known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, the 111-seat venue was home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company from 1999 until this March when the company vacated it to move into the new Eternity Playhouse in East Sydney, opening in November.

Having won the tender from the City of Sydney Council to become the next resident company, IMT will announce a new name for the venue in the coming weeks.

Describing themselves as a “collaborative partnership”, IMT comprises a team of organisations who already have runs on the board producing small-scale musicals and cabaret: Luckiest Productions (David Campbell, Lisa Campbell and Richard Carroll), Neglected Musicals (Michelle Guthrie), Squabbalogic (Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns, who are soon to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Factory in Marrickville), Neil Gooding Productions (who produced the Australian musical The Hatpin by Peter Rutherford and James Millar) and independent producers Michael Huxley and Simone Parrott.

Commercial musicals currently dominate the music theatre scene in Sydney – and there aren’t that many of those each year given the relatively limited audience compared to London or New York.

It’s not that Sydney doesn’t see small-scale, independent musicals but the productions are sporadic and scattered around various venues. Presenting regular shows in one venue will give the work a very useful focus.

Having their own home, where they can support each other, will also give the companies involved a better chance to survive and thrive.

Initially IMT’s audience is likely to be industry-based along with serious musical theatre fans but if the work is good a broader audience will hopefully follow pretty quickly. London’s Menier Chocolate Factory is an obvious model, whose success will doubtless be encouraging for the IMT team.

The chance to see musicals from overseas that would otherwise be unlikely to make it to our shores – whether that be little seen classics or more recent, innovative work – is so important for the development of the artform, as well as for the people who want to make it and perform in it.

Developing new Australian musicals – that most challenging of theatrical beasts – is  something that IMT will hopefully be well placed to undertake in the fullness of time.

It is a small venue but the IMT team are specialists in the field of small-scale music theatre and cabaret and should have the expertise and nous to choose the right shows and make them work in the intimate setting.

Neglected Musicals is already associated with the venue having presented terrific rehearsed readings of nine musicals there including No Way to Treat a Lady, On the Twentieth Century and Variations by Australia’s Terry Clarke and the late Nick Enright.

Stephen Colyer’s Gaiety Theatre (not associated with IMT) has also had success staging musicals there, including Hello Again and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

The first IMT production is likely to be presented at the start of next year. I can’t wait.

You can find IMT at www.independentmusictheatre.com or follow them on Facebook or Twitter @IMTsydney