30 September 2016
There are two kinds of composer: those who know what they’re doing; and those who don’t know what the others are doing. Joshua Schmidt is definitely one of the former. As composer and co-librettist of this exceptionally brilliant musicalization of Elmer Rice’s seminal and ground-breaking 1923 expressionist drama of the same name, Schmidt gets top billing, with his co-librettist Jason Loewith, in this impeccable and stylish production by Alex Turner Productions in association with SDWC Productions at the Finborough Theatre. He may not be widely known to British audiences, but – on the evidence of this singularly accomplished and beautiful work – that, surely, is about to change. Having received the commission to do this three years ago, Schmidt has written every note of the score, orchestrations, vocal arrangements, and has attended rehearsals and all the opening performances of this British premiere of his magnificent work. Having heard the score many times in its US recording (available from PS Classic, i-Tunes and Amazon now), and seen the Finborough production twice, I cannot help but be in awe of this sensational achievement. The same enthusiasm infects all involved in this production, beginning with the fine MD, Ben Ferguson, his other two band-members Tristan Butler and Hamish Brown, the sound designer, Philip Matejtschuk (from whom so much of the soundscape emanates), and the outstanding cast who have been sourced from the very finest exponents of music theatre. Musically, this is a serious work, that demands a lot of its listeners; but it repays handsomely in its dramatic and aesthetic effects.
Turner, in collaboration with his outstanding director, Josh Seymour, having distinguished themselves last year with a fine production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘One Arm’ at the Southwark Playhouse, in one move has elevated his enterprising new company into the top ranks of British music theatre production houses. Supported by the brilliant set and costume design concept of Frankie Bradshaw (who recently scored such a success with Tooting Arts Club’s ‘Barbarians’ in the old Central St Martin’s art school building), and the brilliant lighting of Neill Brinkworth’s (who understands the Finborough perfectly), and with movement by Chi-San Howard, this is one of the best productions you are likely to see all year.
Simply, the story is a fable of ‘Modern Times’: the little man, Mr Zero (Joseph Alessi, in wonderfully naturalistic form, absolutely not fitting into the expressionistic world served up by the play), is ground down by his formidably nagging wife, Mrs Zero (Kate Milner-Evans, combing the looks of Garbo with a voice from Schoenberg and Strauss, making her anything but a good match for her spouse), and a life of repetitive drudgery. Recalling the rebellion of Georg Kaiser’s hero in ‘From Morning to Midnight’, he commits a capital crime against The Boss (James Dinsmore, giving yet another wonderfully well realised performance). Processed swiftly by the machinery of the law, he is propelled into the after-life, where things turn out to be far from as expected, and in ways that prove even more grossly mechanical than those in the world of the living. Meanwhile, he is pursued by co-worker Daisy (Joanna Kirkland, metamorphosing from drably repressed to elegantly vivacious), and accompanied along the way by an ever mutable chorus of Sue Appleby, Edd Campbell Bird, George Rae and Helen Walsh, who with some of the above play a couple of dozen or more roles between them.
Seymour’s handling of the minute space of the Finborough is flawless. He begins small, and seems to use each scene to open things out more and more, with each gesture of elaboration given perfect expression by Bradshaw. Moment by moment, the world gets bigger around us, with sudden, bold strokes of theatrical invention shaking us up whenever we think we know where things are going. Curiously, despite its mechanistic ethos, as a drama, there is never a moment we really know what’s coming next. In the 90 minutes of its uninterrupted compass, we travel far and wide through this life and the next, and always seem to be held on the tantalising brink of discovering yet more.
Elmer Rice, whose autobiography is as revelatory as it is wittily enjoyable, grew up in the melting pot of turn of the twentieth century New York, and set himself the task of succeeding on Broadway quickly, in order not to comply with his father’s wishes for him to follow a respectable commercial career. Well, he not only succeeded, but he broke the mould of American theatre, introducing the first use of the ‘flashback’ on stage in 1915, in his ‘On Trial’, and amongst his prolific oeuvre pushing even further what could be done in terms of theatrical story-telling with this remarkably episodic and bizarrely modernistic morality tale for an amoral age. The Broadway production was so impressive, and so astonishingly original, that when the time came to tell England about it, the whole thing was packed up and shipped over to London for its premiere here at the Garrick, with the script being published, along with full-sized plates of each of its various tableaux’ stagings. So, today, to set it in a ‘conventional’ musical theatre way would be wholly against everything it stands for. Wisely, the creators of this musical adaptation have worked in sympathy with the original instincts of the play and have made an event that is perhaps exactly what Rice himself might have had in mind, had the call come then to turn this into a work with song. That Turner and co. have made it into such a perfect production is a further stroke of good luck.
It’s playing at the Finborough for a brief run till October 22nd. Do not miss it.