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Musicals

Oct 7, 2012

REVIEW: Promises, Promises | State Theatre, Melbourne

This is one big broken promise. Melbourne's Production Company vows to do more with less in musical theatre, but its adaptation of the Burt Bacharach tuner falls flat.

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Promises, Promises, the final 2012 outing for The Production Company, clunked its way onto the State Theatre stage this past Wednesday, promising the world and a truckload of fireworks, and delivering something more on the scope of Lower Templestowe and a handful of sparklers.

This strange, lifeless revival of a classic, with a score by pop giants Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a book by venerated playwright Neil Simon (based on Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment), is a masterclass in how not to stage a musical. Much is made of the company’s “limited resources” and short rehearsal periods, and their shows are inevitably lauded for doing so much with so little. I call bullshit. This emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Not even a wristwatch. This emperor’s been naked for so long his toes have turned blue and his nipples have fallen off.

As a harbinger of what’s to come, the overture is accompanied by some kind of Ritalin-fuelled dream ballet. Skinny-suited men and mini-skirted women twirl, spin and clomp their way around a wheeled arrangement of desks for no discernible reason. The choreography we’re subjected to throughout the evening is somehow both irredeemably boring and entirely unhinged. Dancers clap violently, limbs jerk in palsied spasm and the concept of moving in unison seems to have been left on a mountaintop somewhere to die of exposure.

The show itself isn’t great, but it isn’t as terrible as this production might lead you to believe. The jaunty, horn-slathered, piano-tethered score is catchy, but songs are few and far between. Simon’s book has dated a little, but the anachronistic sexual politics seem somehow more forgivable in a post-Mad Men world. As a period piece it’s still clever and some of the jokes still zing.

Matt Hetherington is immensely likeable as Chuck Baxter, our long-suffering hero. The book is peppered with fourth wall-shattering asides for Chuck, and Hetherington’s deft charms have the audience giggling in his thrall from curtain to curtain. It’s a shame, then, that his voice isn’t quite up to the songs he’s given.

Marina Prior, as downtrodden cafeteria worker Fran Kubelick, suffers similarly, though the issue here lies less in her talents and more in the fact that she’s simply miscast. The program — and every single piece of text ever written about her — proclaims Prior as Australia’s “leading lady of musical theatre”. It’s as though, if you trod the boards in a major musical during the ’90s, had pretty hair and spent enough nine-minute segments perched atop the leather couches at Good Morning Australia trading double and single entendres with Bert Newton and his wig, you came away with some kind of mantle (see also: “The Lovely Leggy Rhonda Burchmore”). Prior is fine. She can sing. She can act a bit. She can do the voice she used as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls until the cows come home. Here, she swings between little-girl-lost and little-girl-very-lost, and it comes off as vanilla as a Dixie Cup. Her eleven-o’clock duet with Hetherington, the pop smash I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, is nice, but lifeless staging means that’s where it ends.

Chelsey Plumley steals the show — and, quite frankly, the season — with her second act turn as brassy barfly Marge MacDougall. Plumley is only on stage for 25 minutes, but Simon’s jokes and entendres flow out of her mouth as though they were written for her. Delivering both the only consistent and convincing American accent in the show, and the only fully-realised character, Plumley is theatrical Tiger Balm — a welcome reprieve from the vaguely-directed, undercooked turns that have become signature Production Company fare.

Director Nadia Tass’s staging is uninspired — though it is leaps and bounds above the the faxed-in, toddler-like treatment Gale Edwards gave to Chess, the previous show in the season. Musical director Guy Simpson’s orchestra is perfectly adequate, though large chunks of the chorus work throughout the show are sloppy and impossible to understand. Isaac Lumis’s costumes are faultless and pitch-perfect.

Andrew Bellchambers’s set is insipid and featureless, dividing the stage into two too-far-apart levels with a long scaffolding platform as is the Production Company tradition. In lieu of any real stage pieces, we’re treated to five white plastic panels, backlit with colour-change LEDs (Now they’re red! Now they’re green! Now they’re orange!), and a bizarre set of multi-coloured fairy lights spread across a New York city skyline — fairy lights that seem to have a life of their own and spend the last hour of the show cycling through the standard array of chasing, flashing and fading effects we’ve all seen on Christmas trees everywhere.

The show flatlines entirely during the first-act closer Turkey Lurkey Time, which is choreographed and blocked so tediously that it could’ve simply been done away with. Here, choreographer Tanya Mitford (whose bio helpfully points out she’s “in demand as a personal trainer and adjudicator” among other things) has lifted chunks of choreography from a staging of the same number in the 2004 movie-musical Camp. The solidly talented ensemble work hard, doing their best to smooth over the awkwardness and sell the less-than-fresh goods they’ve been given, but the only thing worth noting is how hard they’re trying.

The Production Company can put on a brilliant show. This isn’t one of them.

The details: Promises, Promises played the State Theatre, Arts Centre on October 3-7.

Byron Bache —

Byron Bache

Wires and Lights blogger and Curtain Call Melbourne critic

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