Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Clinton The Musical - Black Swan State Theatre Company in association with Perth Theatre Trust (29 August 2016)

At the heart of Clinton the Musical is a pretty good idea. The charismatic yet deeply flawed William Jefferson Clinton is such a polarising figure in American politics that he literally inhabits two separate personalities – the consummate politician WJ Clinton (Simon Burke) and the self-destructive philanderer Billy Clinton (Matt Dyktynski). This conceit, while not excusing the more reckless aspects of his Presidency, does in fact make Clinton a surprisingly sympathetic figure. It was the other guy who did all those things!

The second surprise is that the musical seems incorrectly titled because for much of its running time it is undoubtedly Rodham-Clinton the Musical with Lisa Adam giving a terrific performance as Hillary. Adam made for a most funky First Lady who wasn’t afraid to assert herself with the boys and displayed excellent comedic chops. The sight of Hillary busting a groove in a stylish pant suit was inherently funny and the humour was self-deprecating here with all of the Democratic Presidential Nominee’s current woes revisited including a prescient call to Donald Trump. The overall result, however, is wildly uneven with some very strange choices in the construction of the Book and a largely unmemorable set of songs.

I fully expected that the Clintons would be raked over the coals and there is no doubt there are a lot of cheap and easy laughs at their expense. However, they come off lightly compared to the villains of piece. Apparently Kenneth Starr, according to the Hodge brothers, was the key architect of the plot to destroy the Clintons right from the get go like some modern day Littlefinger. I can accept that as creative shorthand to coalesce the forces of opposition into one identifiable antagonist. What I didn’t understand was Starr's portrayal as a cackling, hyper-sexualised comic book villain that would have fit right into something like Despicable Me, inexplicably. Paradoxically, Brendan Hanson, always a solid and dependable leading man, grabbed the role by the scruff of the neck and gave such a scene chewing, lascivious performance that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Even when averting your eyes might have been wise in the gloriously camp Starr is Born.

The figure who came off worst though was Newt Gingrich who was depicted as an infantile dolt. Luke Hewitt did as much as he could with the Republican Speaker including a funny moment with a can of peaches (impeachment, geddit?) but otherwise this was another cartoon character. At one point I literally said to myself, “Oh, it’s Homer Simpson… without the goofy charm.” The most negative result of this simplicity is when Newt’s stunning hypocrisy is revealed. Yes, he was having an affair with an aide during the impeachment hearings yet I didn’t like the implied commentary about young women who ‘throw themselves’ at such men when those men are shown to be utter buffoons.

That the forces of opposition were so cartoonish was a considerable weakness. I know I have been spoiled by Aaron Sorkin’s and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s master works on American politics but there was no subtlety and rarely any cleverness here. The humour would frequently cross the line from raunchiness to simply being crass - the notorious cigar gets a good work out in some tasteless sight gags. 

Monica Lewinsky is blessedly played with some restraint by Megan Kozak and her first meeting with Clinton is quite well handled. The awestruck, na├»ve youngster is bedazzled by Billy. Kozak then gets the signature song you’ll probably be humming along to for days which would be fine except for the fact that the chorus is “I’m fucking the fucking President, oh yeah, oh yeah!”  (I apologise to any workmates today who may have inadvertently overhead such recounting). She belts it out in style and displays her own quirky comedic style that was showcased earlier in the year in a couple of Fringe World cabaret shows.

As for the Clintons, Burke comes into his own more in the second act and has one of the few musical highlights with A Place Called Hope where the over the top artifice is momentarily stripped away and we get the briefest glimpse of a real human being. He also has some droll fun with It Depends as Clinton indulges in verbal gymnastics in an attempt not to perjure himself. That this is immediately sabotaged by the juvenile Sexual Relations is emblematic of the production as a whole.

Leather clad Dyktynski was a strangely passive Billy and one of the flaws in the Book was the amount of times his alter ego or Hillary would exclaim, “I want you gone!” It was too much repetition for no result. Indeed, the split personality could have been utilised far more effectively if the relaxed and confident Dyktynski was given more leeway and agency. The other notable over usage was of the word ‘legacy’ which was hammered home innumerable times with ever diluted impact.

The final member of the cast, Clare Moore, most amusingly was a spunky Eleanor Roosevelt whose pronouncements were misinterpreted by Hillary. Moore also is the Judas of the piece with an over-eager Linda Tripp keen to make her mark as she betrays Monica’s confidences.    

While I have many misgivings about the content, the set was quite spectacular – a giant rotating rotunda with the band perched on the top level while underneath, on one side, was a representation of the columns of the Capital Building where Congress sits; the other the Oval Office (though that, Sir, is no Resolute Desk!). The show is directed with flair by Adam Mitchell who did briefly address the audience at the beginning of the second preview as some technical difficulties had occurred two nights before. No such problems seemed to bedevil this ‘second dress rehearsal’ and he used Hanson, Kozak, Moore, and Hewitt in a variety of supporting roles, notably as members of the press.  

What ultimately to make of Clinton the Musical then? I found it spasmodically funny but often I was laughing at it rather than going along with the gag. There are a couple of sequences where it threatened to elevate itself into something greater – Starr is Born/Lie To You in the first act and A Place Called Hope/Enough in the second. Lisa Adam was excellent and it was fun to see Hanson cut loose, albeit in a problematic role. I was also delighted to see Kozak do well in her first outing for Black Swan in what again could have been a tricky characterisation. It had its moments but in the end the second act dragged and the whole endeavour was a little too hit and miss for mine.  

Book by Paul and Michael Hodge; Music and Lyrics Paul Hodge. Directed by Adam Mitchell, Musical Director David Young and starring Lisa Adam, Simon Burke, Matt Dyktynski, Brendan Hanson, Luke Hewitt, Megan Kozak, and Clare Moore, Clinton the Musical is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 11 September.

Images by Daniel James Grant

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