Virgins ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Virgins: a musical threesome by Mathew Frank and Dean Bryant, directed by Dean Bryant. Musical director Luke Byrne, design by Adam Gardnir. With Esther Hannaford, Rosemarie Harris, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Amanda Levy and Kellie Rode. The Tower Theatre @ the Malthouse until February 11

I am becoming rather thoughtful about musicals; there's a lot of them about these days. And I wonder...

The richest Australian prize for music theatre, the Pratt Prize, is slanted toward developing one particular genre of music theatre, the Broadway musical; founder and philanthropist Jeanne Pratt said when the prize was launched that she "was more or less trying to find an Australian Irving Berlin". To the end of promoting this artform, the Pratt Foundation (which of course has every right to encourage whatever it likes) has a company, The Production Company, which last year ran a season of performances of Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.

No one is going to sneeze at a $80,000 prize; and the sheer fact of it must be exercising a magnetic pull on Australian music theatre. The argument is that the Australian musical (which has had a fairly disastrous history, from the famous debacle of Manning Clark's History of Australia to the enthusiastic kitsch of Eureka! a couple of years ago) needs all the help it can get. This may well be true. But music theatre is a broad church, inhabited by many more forms than the traditional Broadway musical, or its contemporary off-Broadway offshoots such as Urinetown. Although, of course, it behoves me to remember indigenous shows like The Sapphires, or the cabaret of Eddie Perfect or Paul Capsis, I find myself worrying about ecological diversity.

Don't get me wrong; it's not like I think the musical should not exist. But if that broad church "music theatre" tends, particularly in its fringe manifestations, primarily to the poles of Broadway and the West End, I believe that it's a problem. I'm thinking rather wistfully of the energy and inventiveness of Australian music theatre in the 70s and 80s - John Romeril's rude and crude The Golden Holden Show, produced in 1975, or Daniel Keene's Cho Cho San, Madame Butterfly reimagined with banraku puppetry and a score that mixed jazz, rock and opera, which was the theatre hit of the 80s.

It's a question even in New York: critic George Hunka, surveying the New York Fringe Festival, comments sardonically that for all its pop and verve, the program is populated by "knowing, sly" musical comedies, all vying for a slot on Broadway, or at least off-Broadway. The writers of Virgins, Mathew Frank and Dean Bryant, have, in fact, already had a musical produced in New York, and the gravity of the American Dream looms large in the three pieces presented here. I guess that Melbourne is about as off-Broadway as it gets.

The show is really three mini-musicals, of which only the first, The Virgin Wars, is overtly American. It's an amusing skit which exposes the conflicting messages given to young contemporary women who must, in a culture saturated with images of sexuality, preserve their chastity. Five young women are touring American high schools, using their cheerleader sassiness to promote the excitement of preserving oneself for marriage. Meanwhile, their bump'n'grind routines convey entirely another message - and it seems that some of the girls are not as pure as they make out. As it were.

The next two pieces directly address media representations. Girl on the Screen concerns a woman journalist assigned to investigate soft porn websites run by women. Are they, she asks, empowered by what they do, or are they merely exploited by a world shaped only by male desire? The straightlaced journalist finds that the truth is more complicated than she imagined - and worse, that her employment by a multinational media company is a more profound form of prostitution.

The final show, Jumpin' the Q, invents the ultimate bad taste reality show: singing asylum seekers from a variety of countries (Russia, Columbia, Iran and Zimbabwe) compete for a visa, a recording contract and a new life in Australia. The exploitative voyeurism of of reality tv is here lifted to new heights, although it's actually not that hard to imagine such a show being seriously mooted: some things in our modern world are beyond parody.

Each of these shows is inventively directed by Dean Bryant, with a minimal but effective design that permits the Tower seating to be rearranged twice in the course of the evening. And performances are without exception full-blooded and fun: there's a lot of talent on show here. The five-piece band grinds out an entertaining marriage of rock and musical numbers, and if there are dramatic longueurs, especially in the final piece, they are largely compensated for by some spirited singing and dancing.

The Virgin Wars is the most successful of these three, perhaps because the ideas it addresses are the most apt to its form. In the other two I found myself contemplating an uncertain marriage of form and content: the attempt at serious social commentary collides heavily with the entertainment aesthetic of the musical. In the middle is, perhaps inevitably, a soft centre.

Are the asylum seekers amusing caricatures of different nationalities (notwithstanding that the Zimbabwean is a white refugee), or people whose histories and personalities should rouse empathy and understanding? The production oscillates uncomfortably between these questions, never quite resolving them. Jumpin' the Q has enough intelligence to avoid the worst traps that lie waiting for it in tackling this subject but, perhaps out of an admirable respect for the issues it addresses, it fails to be bold enough to pull off its own conceit. Part of me wished that it was much crueller, that it dared to follow to the end the logic of its own bad taste.

Perhaps being under the rubric of "entertainment" means that one cannot create too much offence: and certainly it is difficult to pull the emotional gems of real drama out of the froth of musicals. Which isn't, of course, to say that it can't be done. But that's another argument.

Chris Boyd's review at The Morning After


Anonymous said...

Well, you remember Howard Barker's statement in Arguments for a Theatre, Alison: "The authoritarian art form is the musical." That may be slightly extreme, but only slightly.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - well, I'm not sure that you can call Howard Barker "slightly" anything...

I am personally very ambivalent about the deterministic nature of form (the proof is always, after all, in the pudding): but there is, without doubt, a lurking aesthetic authoritarianism in the bottom line; most crassly evident in Hollywood, of course, but also in any theatre in which the first imperative is commercial success. Not that I am against commercial success per se, or think that unpopularity is an indice of quality. These questions are just not that simple. But I'll refrain from reaching for Adorno.

Anonymous said...

hi alison,
forgive the intrusion.

my name is nathan curnow. small time poet and playwright. i would like to invite you to review my upcoming play at the carlton courthouse. 5 april. it's part of the comedy festival this year. called 'Disney on dry Ice'.
dir: Greg Carroll.

much better than 'The Lion King', altho there are no puppets, no songs, and one of the actors has a lisp.

hope you might be interested.