|Photo by David Hooley|
HERRINGBONE - A Vaudeville Ghost Story, is a work by Tom Cone. With Music by Skip Kennon and Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. It first appeared in 1981 and this is its Australian Premiere. It is a one man performance. Jay James-Moody takes on its mantle. For ninety minutes he sings - 14 songs - and dances everything. He gets to create and play and sustain 11 characters. SYBIL (1976), may pop into your mind. Or even the recent SPLIT (2017), may do, too, such are the amazing number of 'possessions' that Mr James-Moody delivers in this production.
A ghost wearing a Herringbone suit, besides some grubby underwear, retells the story of a poor family in Alabama who in 1929 are disappointed with the benefits of the will of their recently deceased relative, who then, inadvisedly, pursue the training of their 8 year old son, Arthur, as an entertainer - an old vaudevillian, a midget who was once part of a duo act called The Chicken and The Frog, is induced to coach him, in the hope that he will make it, later, as a child "movie star" in Hollywood. (Great Depression Dreams.) The sub-title of the show ought to give you the inkling that not all goes well. Arthur can't stop dancing, (THE RED SHOES, pops into your mind), as he becomes possessed by The Frog-half of the old vaudeville act.
The subject matter of this Southern Gothic Tale drags one into an uncomfortable suspecting that what transpires in Mr Cone's Book is a terrible case of 'insanity' brought about by child abuse that ends in suicide with a jump from a 14th story window. It has the feel of horrors of THE DAY OF THE LOCUST - a 1939 novel by Nathaniel West, which was transposed into a great film by John Schlesinger in 1975: The character of Harry Greener, played by Burgess Meredith, a down-and-out Vaudevillian - surfaces into one's memory in Mr James-Moody's Lou. And, add the haunting figure of Homer Simpson (yes, that is the character's name), and, further add his last dreadful act, played by Donald Sutherland, and the imagery is complete. HERRINGBONE, unfortunately, has none of the literary sophistications of its predecessor. HERRINGBONE, is dross for the gullible.
Jay James-Moody has produced this show, and co-directs it as well, with Michael Ralph, who is also the choreographer. Plucking this obscure 38 year old work from obscurity would have been an irresistible tantalisation for any gifted performer for it requires a prodigious talent to venture this one-man piece and will demonstrate the versatility and stamina of the artist who dares. And, certainly, he who dares in this instance, wins. It is a breathtaking exhibition of Mr James-Moody's talent and potential.
This exciting exhibition is, unfortunately, expended on this work that is less than transparent and plummets into ill conceived narrative and does not seem to have much to say or illuminate - it gets into a 'squirmy' place with a sex encounter between 8 year-old George, possessed by the midget, Lou, and the front desk keeper of the Hotel, Dot. Dot, she, who demands to hear the child's voice repeatedly, to get off! The Book is 'freaking'-weak, to say the least. The Music and the Lyrics, are not memorable and, relatively, I would estimate as third rate. And really, and truly, Mr James-Moody need not have proven his gifts for us for we are in awe already: last year's dexterous characterisations in SHE LOVES ME at the Hayes Theatre, and his tour de force in the otherwise over burdened production of Patrick White's A CHEERY SOUL was a standout - there is much else, as well.
There is a three piece band: Natalia Aynsley (Assistant Musical Director and Keys), Amanda Jenkins (Double Bass) and Tom McCracken (Drums) under the Musical Direction of Benjamin Kiehne. Maybe, it is over volumed by Sound Designer, Jessica James-Moody. Benjamin Brockman has delivered a crack -a-jack Set Design and a Lighting Design that keeps, fortunately, everything alert. He is a boon to this show.
HERRINGBONE - A Vaudeville Ghost Story, is a production for the fans of Mr James-Moody - and who isn't? - who can, then, ignore the Play that is the framework for this - it must be - passion project (?) I can ignore the short-comings of the play and can still remain an avid fan of Mr James-Moody's gifts and talents.