BROADWAY BARD: SYDNEY FRINGE FESTIVAL

By Lloyd Bradford Syke – Crikey Theatre

To Morrow, and to Morrow, and to Morrow! Fans of The Chaser will know Julian Morrow’s a pretty smart guy. Perhaps less well-known is his dad, Melvyn Morrow, is, too. He’s a backroom boy, but if I mention that he’s written, way back when, for Phillip Street Theatre and The Mavis Bramston Show (both of which my surviving parent is still prone to raving about) and, latterly, Dusty and Shout!, he’s suddenly catapulted to front-and-centre fame.

He’s penned literally dozens of musicals and cabarets to boot. So he’s likely to be among the most famous people you’ve never heard of. Melvyn has devised and directed this show, the kind that, if someone were to propose it to you, you’d likely rejoin, ‘that’ll never work’. Imagine matching many of Shakespeare’s major themes with a Broadway showtune. You’re right, it’s almost unimaginable: seeing is the only possible believing.

Julian Kuo stars, bringing his singing and acting skills to bear, in honour of the Bard. Of course, he’s got strong material with which to work, since Morrow has crafted the script from what would appear to be intimate knowledge and understanding, both of Shakespeare and Broadway. And commensurate enthusiasm for both.

Like Melvyn, the show’s been ’round the block a few times. Apparently, John Bell liked it enough to have his company perform it as a fundraiser.

The underlying premise of the work is that, were ye ole Bill alive today (something for which I yearn), he’d by writing musicals and living the high life, a la, Lloyd Webber. A captivating concept. So, soliloquy meets song, as we meet characters as diverse as the tormented, lovestruck Romeo and Richard III. The almost pretty Kuo doesn’t quite have the gravitas to really pull off the latter but, given the challenging diversity of which I speak, it’s a fair feat to deliver a decent Benedick, Caesar, Hamlet, et al. And, for Christ’s sake, he’s only 20, having graduated from the AIM just last year.

His interpretations, of both soliloquy and song, are gentle, thoughtful and imbued with profound feeling.

Kuo struggled to hit the right notes at first, but, as acceptance from the audience became clearer to him, he seemed to relax and soon found all of his voice, which mightn’t be the most powerful out there, but which, at its best, has a seductive, richly expressive timbre. His interpretations, of both soliloquy and song, are gentle, thoughtful and imbued with profound feeling.

To begin with, we learn “everything’s coming up Shakespeare”. There could be no ballsier convergence of classic and contemporary entertainment, as the ‘original Broadway Billy’ meets another great lyricist, in Stephen Sondheim. And when one considers Jule Styne’s clamourous tune, inextricably linked to Merman’s belting vocal, the meeting doesn’t seem at all like a clash, but utterly complementary: after all, Merman, punching out Sondheim’s doggedly resilient lyric puts one in mind of the declamatory Shakespeare of yore. And Shakespeare and Sondheim can eat their hearts out: get a load of Morrow’s adaptation. You’ll be swell! You’ll be great! Watch iambic pentameters, mate! And the line, Prince Hal ends up Hal Prince neatly sums up the nature of the whole shebang.

In support of his argument, which unequivocally postulates WS as the Cam Macbeth of his day, Morrow riases the terrifying spectre, not of Banquo’s ghost, but Love Never Dies, the thus far ill-fated sequel to The Phantom, pointing out that while that might seem hopelessly ambitious, the fearless bard churned out umpteen! (Think of Richard II, followed by Henries IV, V & VI (the last in three instalments), cuminating in Richard the turd.) Yep, Willo was quite the impresario. This discussion is followed by a character study of Benedick, musing on the cost of loosing blood to serve that fickle mistress, love. It occurs to me, Kuo, as such, might’ve segued into The Everly Brother’s (latterly, Roxy Music’s) The Price Of Love, but Being Alive was probably much more the go. It was quite stunning that excerpts from Benedick’s self-talk should weave so well with verses from Being Alive; apparently, Morrow is nothing, if not a Sondheim fan.

What do you get?
 Someone to hold you too close, 
Someone to hurt you too deep,
 Someone to sit in your chair
 And ruin your sleep.
 Bloody Beatrice, methinks!

Interpolations continue in this high style, with the placid, engaging Kuo buoyed along by a sophisticated, but utterly unpretentious script. At its best, and in Kuo’s care, it is transporting and deeply moving. At its worst? There is no worst. It’s, by turns, sad, poignant, bitter, twisted, sarcastic. And downright hilarious. Some of the links may be tenuous (Shall I Compare Thee is matched to If Ever I Should Leave You, but any excuse would do), but they still leave you in admiration, if not awe, of Morrow’s research, or extant Shakespearean vocab. And his direction is subtle, yet courageous: Hamlet faces away from us for a good part of his most famous of all speeches. Simply propped and lit, the focus is kept wholly and solely on material, performer and performance.

Unfortunately, it’s now over, for another season. Let’s hope it finds another home soon.

The details: Broadway Bard played the Sidetrack Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival on September 9-11.

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