By Stephen Schwartz with David Stern and Michael Scheman; directed by Kerrie Hartin; Arcadians Theatre Group, Miner’s Lamp Theatre Corrimal, NSW. 9-24 June.
Reviewed : 17 June, 2023
What a coup for the Arcadians to premiere this enchanting musical! Who would have thought that songs from twelve different musicals could be brought together to frame such a thoughtful, sad, lovely story – and how fortuitous that someone as sensitive and perceptive as Kerrie Hartin should direct its first Australian production!
Because Hartin’s production is captivating. She has approached it with the deft touch of, as she admits, “an enthusiastic scrapbooker”, layering the production with texture and colour and gentle humour as her six very talented performers tell the story of a failing marriage through old photos hidden away in a box in the attic – through the words of twenty-nine songs written by Stephen Schwartz.
From Pippin and Godspell to Wicked and Enchanted, songs have been lifted, and with their lyrics slightly changed, used to tell a different story, one that Schwartz himself doubted would work when first approached by writers David Stern and Martin Scheman. But he “became increasingly enticed by the cleverness of the book David Stern was developing”, so much so that he was drawn into the writing process of this unique ‘musical scrapbook’.
Hartin and set designer Glenn McMahon have used the full possibility of the Miner’s Lamp stage to take the characters of Sue and Dan from their attic back in memory to their school days, their graduation, their first apartment, their wedding and the birth of their son.. The mixture of colours, fabrics and levels links the thirty plus years the story covers and allows for some sneaky surprises.
Hartin is an imaginative director, sensitive to the emotional implications of the plot, and with her cast, finds in action and in song, the poignancy of loneliness, rejection, first love, envy … and gradual growing apart. With musical director Valerie Hull, and choreographer Pauline Young, she takes her six performers on an emotional journey shaded by a little sadness but highlighted by happy memories and gentle humour.
All six performers have exciting voices that can find the variation in tempo, tone and pitch that the many songs demand – and the harmonies that are so intrinsic to the tenor and complexity of the production. By bringing characters and their voices together in specific songs, on different levels, Hartin and Hull have created sensual images that are subtly highlighted by lighting designer Peter Cleaves.
The play opens late at night as Sue (Nicole Coakes) comes to the attic to collect the bag she has packed and secreted away in preparation for leaving her husband Dan (Rik McCann), but she is distracted by a box of photos. When Dan comes home unexpectedly, she pretends to be looking at the photos and they recall the day they first met, when Dan was the “New Kid in the Neighbourhood”.
Jaiden Thomas and Holly Sears become the young Danny and Susie of early memories, taking them through school and college – until Jennifer Bond and Michael Zelvis take over as they eventually become a couple and marry. All six performers interact, as memories come to life in song, interspersed with some simple but effective choreography (Pauline Young) – and some excellent characterisation.
Coakes sustains the protective “shell” Sue has built around herself despite the moments of joy some of the memories evoke. She shows Sue’s strength and determination as well as her insightfulness as she reacts to images of the past – and sings about some of them. Coakes is a constant presence on the stage, watching, reacting, joining the harmonies – but always slightly isolated in the “Code of Silence” that she feels her marriage has become.
McCann shows Dan’s lack of awareness and self-obsession, even as he watches images of the past that exemplify those very characteristics and the effect they had on Susie/Susan. He too is on stage watching constantly. It is clever writing – and direction – that allows the couple to see images from their past from different perspectives.
Holly Sears is charmingly bright as the teenage Susie making her outgoing, accepting, aware – and just a little introspective, especially as she sings “Lion Tamer” – which ‘echoes’ at various times in Sue’s recollections. Sears moves as fluently as she sings, and uses comic timing well, especially in the second act.
Jennifer Bond moves from teenage friend to the older Susie/Susan in a clever scene change that introduces a more mature, settled Susan, a wife and mother, always supportive but becoming increasingly lonely. Bond also has a strong, clear voice that combines beautifully with that of Sears and Coakes as they sing, especially in “Meadowlark” – another song that is used to reprise the past.
Jaiden Thomas is appealingly awkward as the young Danny, aging his character to a more confident teenager and college graduate, who, unfortunately for Susie, still sees her as a buddy. In the second act he takes on a variety of roles – and harmonises beautifully in the many songs that bring the characters up to the present.
Michael Zelvis plays the more mature Daniel, at work and play in New York and still totally unaware of Susie as a woman rather than a friend. Zelvis makes Daniel fun but self-centred, using his infectious smile to charm the girls, and his powerful voice to charm the audience. His comic timing is effective, especially when he plays Roger, Susie’s unwanted, persistent beau.
As they bring the characters in the “snapshots” to life – and sing the songs that cleverly decode the emotions of each scene – these four performers eventually take Sue and Dan back to the attic where they face one of the “Hardest Parts of Love”.
There are some lovely touches in Hartin’s direction. Funny asides where characters ‘chip’ each from the past. Clever freezes. Smart choreography as the ensemble sings “All for the Best”. Passing birthdays. The sneaky surprises mentioned earlier. The loveliest touch of all is her gentle development of the emotional journey the six characters take, her realisation of how that emotion is fused so ingeniously in the music and Schwartz’s evocative lyrics.
This premiere production is a fine new feather in the Arcadians’ cap – and a tribute to a very discerning and intuitive director.