Sunday, October 29, 2017

An energised and entertaining show but love at first sight doesn't quite gel in The Production Company's Brigadoon


Heading into its 20th year, The Production Company have been nurturing local musical theatre talent and bringing Broadway entertainment to the stage in consistent sparkling form. In this year's final production of the season, the company's characteristic verve and high standards similarly shone in Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) 1947 romantic fantasy, Brigadoon. But something prevented me from feeling completely absorbed by its quaint frothy tale despite director Jason Langley's fresh update, Cameron Mitchell's exhilarating choreography and musical director Michael Tyack's vivacious reign over the gorgeous music-making from the 21-member orchestra.

Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and cast of Brigadoon
For modern eyes, it's probably unsurprising that everyone seemed a little odd in Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reawakens and appears once every 100 years for just one day. In its story -  from the creative duo who went on to pen Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot - adventurous New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Rohan Browne) and Jeff Douglas (Luke Joslin) first seem to think so when they stumble on this quirky village in the Scottish Highlands stuck in another time. From afar, at least from my perspective in the dress circle, Fiona MacLaren (Genevieve Kingsford) might seem its oddest, the pretty village maiden who zooms in on Tommy in a love-at-first-sight encounter.

If we are to believe in love at first sight's inexplicability, I wanted to believe that there's credibility to its magic on stage. Lerner's book wastes no time in setting the scene but falling desperately in love is different to looking hopelessly desperate, which we see in Kingsford's portrayal. Was I taking it far too seriously in this lighthearted escape fuelled mainly by good helpings of comic charm and adrenalised action? I don't think so because believing that Fiona and Tommy's relationship is completely based on love forms the core of the story, not on some ulterior motive which appears to permeate through Fiona's desperation. If that was unequivocally established, the comedy could run with abandon.

Garishly bright-orange-wigged, Kingsford is a talented and magnetic artist to watch and she sang with a rich and attractive sound on opening night, though there were times the top of the voice lost shape at full power. Browne's was a passionate and sensitive portrayal of Tommy, a handsome and modern metrosexual who he gave an impressive sunshiny timbre to. In duet with Kingsford, Tommy and Fiona shared a superbly sweetened interpretation of Act 1's "The Heather on The Hill" but the most vocally seductive and poignant moment the pair melted together in was to come in Act 2's "From This Day On", when Tommy decides he needs to leave Brigadoon.

Nancye Hayes, Genevieve Kingsford and Rohan Browne
In entertaining and cracking comic form, Joslin drew many a genuine laugh playing the laid back and jokester Jeff and made a memorable moment of his disinterest in the largely embraced village strumpet, Meg. Depicting her, suitably voluptuous-voiced Elise McCann gave an unashamed dazzling sauciness and polished up the melodious pair of songs, Act 1's "The Love Of My Life" and Act 2's "My Mother's Wedding Day", with exceptional appeal.

There was not only Fiona's one-eyed desperation and Meg's looseness, but also Maggie's (Karla Tonkich) creepy obsession with Harry and Tommy's blonde and shallow socialite New York fiancé, Miranda Ashton (Adele Parkinson). I couldn't get the solid supply of pretty young faces but unflattering female portraits hanging in the show's gallery out of my mind. If you're older and made up to be plainer, you get a little more substance and two of Australia's esteemed musical theatre performers made certain of that. Sally Bourne gave warmhearted and imposing presence to Fiona's mother Alice and Nancye Hayes was both commanding and approachable as the village matriarch Mrs Forsythe, who Langley gives clever elevation to by replacing her with the original book's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie.

Other excellent performances came from Matthew Manahan as the excitable bridegroom Charlie and his bonny bride Jean, Fiona's sister, Stefanie Jones. Young talented artist Joel Granger shaded the work enormously as the disturbed Harry and the well-experienced Stephen Hall was strong and expressive in the role as his father Archie Beaton.

Luke Joslin as Jeff and Elise McCann as Meg
The ensemble singing was driven with gusto, occasionally overly so, and the dance routines were a series of energised spectacles - Act 1's Sword Dance and Reel and Act 2's Chase, representative of both the traditional and cheesy. Then there was Browne's streamlined moonwalking dance steps to provide contrast. And the solemnity of Harry's funeral with bagpipe accompaniment was heart wrenching. A seat in the stalls would be preferable. From above, the stage can look a tad bare.

At first I was perplexed by the sky-full of crosses that hung above the stage as part of designer Christina Smith's simple and effective set. Then it dawned on me - to protect Brigadoon from being changed by the outside world. It also added an eeriness that is further sensed in the wooden stepped structure in the town's square, a platform that supports the wedding celebration as easily as it could the gallows. Isaac Lummis' costumes are delineated in a thoughtfully detailed spread of colour and Matt Scott's extensive lighting palette captured the various moods wonderfully.

As the wise Mrs Forsythe says, "When you love someone deeply, anything is possible." And as Brigadoon presents it, that can be both a celebration (for Tommy and Fiona) and a curse (as befalls Harry). The appeal of Langley's production is that even when the buzzing entertainment is over, it leaves a little left over to ponder.


Brigadoon
The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 5th November.


Production photos: Jeff Busby

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