One of the exciting things about independent theatre in Perth at the moment is that there are new emerging creative teams that are young, ambitious, and staging challenging work. They are surrounded by a troupe of regular performers such as the case with Ludicrous Displays that appears to have its origins at UWA. Members of the production team, cast and band have worked together recently in varying combinations on productions such as the musicals Spring Awakening and Assassins, as well as The Importance of Being Earnest. Here, however, not only are they presenting an original musical comedy but a revival of said show! I understand this is a pared down version of the original incarnation with more emphasis on comedy and a smaller cast number with the chorus removed.
There may be nothing more challenging in the performing arts than writing musical theatre, in this instance a 90 minute one act musical comedy. Last year I saw a couple of (good) productions that were billed as musicals but felt more like plays with songs. There is a crucial difference and How We Ruined MacArthur’s Markers certainly is a musical with the songs moving the narrative forward and informing the story. In the early going though the songs felt like they were striving to be too clever with overly elaborate word play and rhyming patterns. This meant that they were not, as Sondheim himself made mocking reference to in Merrily We Roll Along, “humma-mamumma-mamum-mable melodies”. Once this settled down the show found a nice groove and was much stronger after the mechanics of the set-up.
The story itself was a little hazy for mine as I wasn’t entirely clear on motivations and backstory but the decision to de-emphasise the drama and push the comedy meant it kind of gets away with it. In essence, the Patriarch has died leaving his eldest son Marcus (James Cohen) in charge of a business that sells pens. Unbeknownst to that heir he has a brother Felix (Ben Thomas) who still lives with their mother who is dying of *cough cough* The Cancer. He applies for a job at the company but doesn’t reveal his true identity while charged with saving it from demise and falling for the Head of R&D, Erica (Amy Fortnum). Marcus has a close relationship with his financial advisor Lewis (Sven Ironside) while loathing his mother Lillian (Olivia Everett). All the while company lawyer Alexandra (Madeline Crofts) amuses herself with booze and writing severance agreements. Ultimately plans are hatched and plots are gleefully foiled.
It’s told in flashback with Crofts’ boozy lawyer giving a wry, almost film noir style commentary on events as she immediately breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. It’s a jaunty performance that is snarky and funny as the lawyer becomes increasingly drunk at a bar recounting the tale. Crofts also has an excellent voice as she demonstrated in Spring Awakening and her showpiece number More Fun That Way as she extols the virtues of booze is a highlight.
The other standout is Ironside playing the loyal and protective advisor who is wary of Felix typified by his number Head Down. He has some funny moments but it is in the more dramatic aspects that he excels. Cohen has perhaps the most unforgiving role as the son who fails to live up to his father’s business acumen and is unaware of who Felix really is. I never really understood the venom he directs towards his mother but Cohen has a strong moment in the second ballad of the show after his own personal epiphany. Thomas, who was impressive as Algernon in Earnest, displays a very good singing voice but is essentially playing the straight man role (and mummy’s boy) and he does this with unadorned, ahem, earnestness.
Fortnum gives Erica a bubbly persona that is a nice counterpoint to Alexandra’s cynicism and she has the strongest song with the ballad Just A Little, itself a catchphrase that is paid off nicely. Everett continues to impress with her comedic talents playing another off-kilter character in the supposedly *cough cough* cancer-ridden mother who manipulates her son and anyone who gets in her way. The conceit is that she’s playing a much older character but her showpiece You’re Fired is feisty and sassy. The band of Benjamin Hogan (keyboard), Scott Collison (reed), Gwyneth Gardiner (bass) and Rosie Taylor (drums) under the baton of Jackson Griggs plays the jazz influenced score well though there were times they were a little too loud for the unmiked singers.
This started a little slowly but had a certain charm with some genuinely funny moments and, when not trying to over-impress with lyrical dexterity, good songs. How We Ruined MacArthur’s Markers is playing in the studio at the Subiaco Arts Centre until 27 June. Book and Lyrics by Thomas Owen and Cal Silberstein with Music by Jackson Griggs, it is directed by Owen and stars Ben Thomas, James Cohen, Amy Fortnum, Olivia Everett, Sven Ironside, and Madeline Crofts.