Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Open For Inspection: The Real Estate Musical!

Lickerty Split & Darlinghurst Theatre Company Present OPEN FOR INSPECTION: The Real Estate MUSICAL! Music and Lyrics by Lucy Egger. Script by Tim Bosanquet. At the Darlinghurst Theatre, Kings Cross.

OPEN FOR INSPECTION is a new musical comedy. It is set "in the cut throat world of Sydney real estate, two ruthless, rival agencies (run by, Carl [Drew Fairley] and Joan [Sara Browne]) are battling for buyers during a property slump. They go to extreme lengths to literally make a killing.... It is about a real estate agent who becomes a Serial Killer... set to music".

The Script (book) is by Tim Bosanquet and the Music and Lyrics by Lucy Egger. The program notes declare that "This is a showcase work that is looking for a good home." It is, indeed, a showcase work, still in developmental stages - workshop stage - and yet, despite some of its muddle and short comings is still worth catching and enjoying. It is a way to help in the creative process of “finishing the hat” as Stephen Sondheim reminds us, in a similar but different context. By you attending, the "ur-creators" can with each evenings performance, read the audience's responses to the work, so that they can gather further insight as to what works and what doesn't in the show and may provide clues as to how to develop the work for the K.O. HIT, they would like it to be. The magic give-and-take of the audience - performers 'circle'.

The history of new writing in Australia is well documented and the difficulties to get work off the page onto a stage is fraught with enormous obstacles, the least of which, maybe, is just finding the performers and spaces to "air" the work in the flesh to see "What have we here? What has been wrought?" Often the writers and collaborators, after years of work, and I do mean years of work, just can't see the 'forest' because of the many 'trees' they have planted, nurtured and love. Questions of what to chop down, prune or replant or replace to create a beautiful forest becomes difficult because of the nursery-care and dedication of these "forest parents".They can become blinded by love, blood , sweat and tears.The musical form is so much more complicated and demanding than the 'straight' play. So many more ingredients are necessary to make it work. The cost of such an enterprise, in all ways, financial and emotional, is so much more expansive and necessary.

The United States which seems to me the most successful 'home' of this art-form (it's creator?) has New York , which "still remains the centre of aspiration and opportunity (for the musical), with or without the prospect of Broadway in sight. Here, the activities of a number of small, not-for-profit, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway companies have played crucial roles in the development of new work - the Manhattan Theater Club (formed in 1970), the Vineyard Theater (1981), New York Theater Workshop (1979) and the now defunct Musical Theater Works (1983 -2004)... Several of the more prominent non-profit companies have committed themselves not only to producing distinguished new shows ...but also to using the prominence of their productions as leverage to transfer them to Broadway when possible. Three of these companies stand out from the rest: The Public Theatre / New Shakespeare Festival (now the Joseph Papp Public Theater), HAIR, A CHORUS LINE, BRING IN 'DA NOISE /BRING IN 'DA FUNK, CAROLINE OR CHANGE, BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON; Playwrights Horizons: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, ASSASSINS, FALSETTOS, FLOYD COLLINS, GREY GARDENS; and Lincoln Center Theater: MARIE CHRISTINE, PARADE, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, besides classic show revivals, ANYTHING GOES, CAROUSEL and SOUTH PACIFIC. The most durable of institutions for training new show writers has been BMI Musical Theatre Workshops, now named for Lehman Engel, the Broadway composer conductor and author who created it in New York in 1961... BMI eventually set up branches elsewhere as well: Toronto, Nashville, Los Angeles" [1].

In Sydney, then, the Darlinghurst Theatre, in, so far a modest way, seems to have begun to nurture this complex theatrical form: last year's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN and a series of 'concert' performances of 'lost' or ‘neglected' musicals and the projected production of Douglas J. Cohen's NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY in October, 2011 (Stephen Colyer, the man responsible for ... SPIDER WOMAN, in charge again), signal this intention.

This production is fun and memorable for the performer and other creative artists' efforts. The evening stays aloft through the loving devotion and sheer energetic talent of the company. James Pope and Sophie Webb lead a thoroughly committed team well drilled by Choreographer, Amy Campbell and Musical Director, Doug Hansell shaped and Directed by Sandra Stockley.

The work itself reveals the possibility of much fun, but at the moment just has too much to carry. The writers have not yet clearly worked out what they are saying and how to say it with succinct ease. The experience of the first act was one of befuddlement for me. In the interval I tried, with discussion with other audience, to work out what was going on (it could have been fateful for the project- a few people thought so). The 'script' needs some complex pruning, for clarity of plotting is not as yet easy to ascertain. It is not the extant work’s strong point. Editorial scissors are needed - it may mean you have to cut some stuff you love- the history of the musical is littered with such need and and action. Ask Mr Sondheim.

The strong points are the characters. Mr Bosanquet has adopted, lovingly, an identity for his six principal characters. They are a conglomeration of easily identifiable old-fashioned musical theatre 'types' and Ms Egger as the lyricist and musician has collaborated with him in developing them further. The character of Monica (delightfully played by Catherine McGraffin), for instance, has all the hall marks of the comic second fiddle of favourite musicals of the past, say, Agnes Gooch in AUNTIE MAME, and is appreciated for that familiarity, but is too long stagnant in her character's journey or function in OPEN TO INSPECTION. And in similar ways this is true of others. The trajectory of the character / ultimate villain, as written, of Brett Zarb (Andrew Cutcliffe) is unclear and leaves one in a bewildered state of identification ease. The final coup of Brett Zarb's character function at the end of the piece is dizzyingly unravelled with abrupt aplomb, not clearly signalled in the earlier writing of his scenes - either that, or the direction, has not yet managed to tell the audience what is happening in more focussed way (the conceit of creating a Chorus of Conscience (Jenny Lind, Amanda Stephens Lee, Chad Richards) for Bagley is another instance of underdeveloped possibility by the writers).

But it is, perhaps the uncertainty of the form of this musical script / book that also needs more work. The production as it stands at the moment seems to me, in my limited knowledge of the musical form, to fall between two genre types. There is, here, a strong affection for the feel good old fashioned musical theatre products , of say, GUYS AND DOLLS: character, sentimentality and over familiar plot action of the fantasy love games of popular culture: against a lot of odds true love will find it's way.

The other genre is that exemplified in a musical like HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. The lead character in OPEN TO INSPECTION is that of Bagley (James Pope) who through craft and accidental manipulation finds success by killing his clients to get deceased estates for his real estate agency- he finds he has a feeling (It Looks Like I'll Do Anything) for it - the hero as a serial killer (like Seymour in another exercise in cynical romance, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS). His professional rival, Debbie (is that Debbie that does Dallas?) (Sophie Webb) while not murdering, is also morally suspect, in that knowing sexual seduction is her choice of weapon for achievement in real estate sales. Bagley's climb to achievement as played, sung and danced by Mr Pope (of unflagging stamina) has a handsome charm and erudite skill that makes the journey almost as "amusingly mean" as J. Pierpont Finch's in the form of Robert Morse, in the HOW TO SUCCEED....musical.

The struggle for Tim Bosanquet as yet is to decide on the romantic musical comedy form of GUYS AND DOLLS or the cynical musical cartoon formula of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (interesting that both these shows , although a decade apart, are by the same creative team: Loesser, Burrows, Feuer and Martin). At the moment it is this divide of genre-type that confuses the clarity of the writing. Have the two formulas been melded before? Probably, so. Kander and Ebb? Mr Bosanquet and Ms Egger and their creative collaborators (see my post on WEST SIDE STORY) have got to cogitate, edit and re-build the super structure and writing of the texts to do one of the three CHOICES, I reckon: Romantic Musical Comedy or Cynical Musical Cartoon or a Kander and Ebb meld.

For all you musical aficionados out there this is a must see to observe the evolution of the musical that is rarely witnessed in Australia (Sydney, at least) and deserves your support. This work may over many other metamorphic opportunities grow into something that one day you can say, as they can in the US/ NY about their fledgling mega-shows (Spidey, how you doing?), "I saw it way back in its second workshop at the Darlo in '11 and boy has it grown" (or not !). Remember RISKY LUNAR LOVE? a legend, I hear".

My friends in San Francisco are awaiting the new musical based on Armistead Maupin's THE TALES OF THE CITY -will we ever see it? New York are still awaiting the opening of SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, with as many previews given so far, than some shows have had performances on Broadway!!!!! It is in the collaborative hands of the lucky makers and an audience’s response.

Whatever the ultimate life of this work, OPEN FOR INSPECTION this brave and inspired commitment to the Australian musical by Lickety Split and Darlinghurst Theatre is worth it. Well done, no condescension meant. Sincerely.

For those of you who embraced THE BOY FROM OZ, PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, here with OPEN TO INSPECTION is a show with original book, lyrics and music that would welcome your input. Do go so that KOOKABURRA and ever loving faithfuls in the music theatre genre, such as Peter Cousins, Simon Phillips can have the sense of the valuation of their efforts. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO at the Lyric Theatre Star City is getting ready for a World Premiere.

Here's hoping, eh?

Advice from Stephen Sondheim [2] :

"In no particular order, and to be written in stone :
all in the service of
without which nothing else matters."

[1] "SHOWTIME: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre" by Larry Stemple. W.W. Norton & Company,Inc., New York, 2010.
[2] "Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (Volume 1) with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes" by Stephen Sondheim. Virgin Books, 2010.

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