Friday, 19 February 2016

Sincerely Yours... A New Musical - Fringe World 2016 (18 February 2016)

How often are we given a second chance? Do we recognise it when we’re presented with that opportunity? Do we have the courage to pursue it or are there things, or perhaps more crucially, people from the past that stop us from moving forward?

That’s the premise of Sincerely Yours, an original new musical written by and starring current and recently graduated WAAPA students. Interestingly, for a show created by Australian twenty somethings, it is set in America during the early to mid-70s with the Vietnam War providing a significant backdrop.

In its musical style and structure it reminded me of The Last Five Years in that there are two timelines at play, one in the present of what I took to be 1975 and three years earlier when James (Andre Drysdale) and Sarah (Megan Kozak) first meet. These timelines are intercut as we move back and forth, the focal point being Sarah’s emotional state. Unlike the Jason Robert Brown musical, however, this is a three hander where Sean (Jason Arrow) becomes a surrogate for James in the ‘present day’ scenes as Sarah deals with the aftermath of her earlier relationship.

The story starts with Sarah, a talented painter, who is struggling to finish a portrait. A letter is slipped under the doorway to her apartment. She hopes it was James, who she hasn’t seen in some time, at the door.  Flashback three years and we have the ‘cute meet’ as the two children of army personnel meet one New Year’s Eve. James has experienced tragedy in his immediate family and this influences his decisions, notably in regard to Vietnam. The two fall in love but the war and James’ sense of duty to his family eventually comes between them. Three years later and Sarah is still coming to terms with what happened and why, assisted by Sean who encourages her to move on.

This is the third show I’ve seen Megan Kozak in at Fringe. I know her as a fine singer with a real flair for playing comic or quirky characters, particularly in her graduating year at WAAPA with standout performances in the musicals Urinetown and Legally Blonde. What was terrific to see here was Kozak sinking her teeth into a dramatic role where there was real heartache and loss. She acquitted herself admirably which bodes well for an already bright future. There’s no doubting her vocal talent but well rounded acting chops add another dimension.

Jason Arrow, who wrote the Book and Lyrics, has the trickiest role as the third wheel to the central relationship. His character flirts with being unlikeable as Sean takes matters into his own hands at one point. We wonder what the character’s true motives are. It’s a non-singing role so Arrow has to rely solely on his acting skills which, apart from being a little busy with hand gestures at times, is effective as his Sean nudges and gently cajoles Sarah into seeing her second chance.

The revelation though is Andre Drysdale who is superb as James. Not only does he have an exquisite voice that was showcased to great effect in several songs, his acting was first rate. This is helped by being given a clearly defined arc that initially maximised a sense of nice guy charm that he handled effortlessly that then crumbles into recrimination and misplaced anger. It is an impressive launching pad into his third year at WAAPA and I’m keen to see how he does in their upcoming musicals.

The music by Kohan van Sambeeck and Arrow was very good indeed. Predominantly piano and cello driven it heightened the emotional nature of the production and was very well played by Joshua James Webb (piano and conductor), Krista Low (cello), Campbell Ellis (guitar), Samuel Gibson (bass) and Ben Cremer on drums. The only thing I would say is that even with Kozak and Drysdale mic’d up, the more drum heavy elements tended to drown them out in the relatively small space. This meant that some of the lyrics were lost especially in the early going as the story was being set up. 

There were a couple of technical hitches - Kozak’s microphone was giving noticeable echo and times when a performer was left in darkness with the lighting design. Some adjustments to get the sound clean and balance right would enhance what was a lovely score and character driven songs.

I did have some issues with the Book. The phrase ‘a second chance’ was overtly referred to far too many times. That’s the theme and would be better utilised as subtext. The overuse as text ultimately watered down its impact. There was a reference that the war was going to start but of course America (and Australia) had long been in Vietnam before the decade started. I didn’t believe that Sarah could possibly be the bearer of bad news at one point given how such things would be handled by the military. They’re minor things but tended to wrench me out of the story. There was also a critical scene between Sean and Sarah where the former takes something from the latter and ruins it. While I understood the intent it’s a tricky sequence that didn’t quite work and flirts with damaging Sean as a character.

Those things aside this was a mature and accomplished piece of musical theatre with an excellent score and well delivered songs that had some great moments of genuinely affecting dramatic acting. It’s a pity that the song titles weren’t included in the otherwise nicely presented programme. 

Sincerely Yours by Stray Cats Theatre Company and Mad Cats Theatre Company is on at Studio 411 (formerly the Drama Workshop) at Murdoch University for only two more performances, 7pm Friday and Saturday.

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