As we walk into the basement space that has become ubiquitous with experiments in theatre, the fog climbs back up the stairs to meet us. It’s a lovely framing device that, along with the bare-branches and swamp moss of the sole set piece, takes the audience straight to a muggy night in Georgia.
This is a beautifully staged production of one of musical theatre’s latest darlings. Sitting the audience in traverse puts us in the heart of the action and allows for large movements in a relatively small space.
Alexander Hiller used some beautifully simple pieces in inventive ways, to allow a neutral space to create a variety of rolling scenes. Nerissa Saville’s costumes did the rest. It is refreshing to see a production that doesn’t rely on hyperrealism in design, but allows the audience the mental space to fill in gaps and meet the action halfway.
The intimacy of this space perfectly suits the cloying and claustrophobic atmosphere of the piece. Unfortunately, it also means that the musicians, who are shielded from the audience by only a drop sheet, frequently overpower the actors. With the exception of songs (and performers) that included a belt, many of the songs were missing their words and even melody as we struggled to deal with the uneven levels. With the cast all wearing microphones, and eight speakers mounted over the audience, this was a struggle that we shouldn’t have had.
Jason Bovaird’s lighting design was fantastic and made great use of the space, allowing actors to morph from one character into the next with a few steps in or out of shadow. Sadly, much like with the sound, the operation was a little off in places. In one particularly dramatic moment, a late lighting cue turned a lynching into a swan dive.
Despite these technical interferences, this is a compelling production. Luigi Lucente puts in an admirable effort as protagonist Leo Frank. His physicality is charming (although occasionally interfering with the strength of his voice), and a little more engagement and interaction with his colleagues would have created a truly heartbreaking performance. Laura Fitzpatrick, as his long-suffering wife Lucille was divine. In particular, her moments of reaction to the action around her replaced a character with a person.
Cameron MacDonald and Tod Strike have the sort of stage presence, and powerful voices, that make it difficult to tear your eyes away when they take the floor. Jemma Plunkett and Amelia Christo delivered engaging and honest performances, which made us feel the excitement of the murdered girl and the subsequent pain felt by her mother. David Price’s sweet softness and rich tone seep into your ears and make you feel all sorts of things. His Tom Watson was equal parts creepy and seductive. It’s a shame that his pieces, free of belt, were lost in the issues with sound levels.
The stand out performance came from Cle Morgan. Each of her three characters was clearly defined and totally engaging. Her reactions and interactions were spot on and her voice is the kind of voice that rattles around your rib cage. Every time she walked on stage I found it difficult to take my eyes off her and her performance, with Timothy Springs, of Rumblin’ and a Rollin’ floored the audience and prompted the greatest applause of the night.
The Collective’s first outing is a success. I saw several members of the audience singing to themselves as they left and I’m excited to see what the group presents next.
Director: James Cutler Cast: Luigi Lucente, Laura Fitzpatrick, Cameron MacDonald, Tod Strike, Amelia Christo, Andrew Doyle, Timothy Springs, David Price, Paul Dawber, Cle Morgan, Jemma Plunkett, Michelle Smitheram, Bonnie Page, Emma Jones Musical Director: Cameron Thomas Choreographer: David Harford Lighting Design: Jason Bovaird Design: Alexander Hiller Costumes: Nerissa Saville Assistant Musical Director: Jack Earle Sound Design: Greg Ginger
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 25 September 2014 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 28 September 2014
For more information, visit: www.collectivetheatre.com.au for details.
Image: Parade Ensemble – photo by Angus Scott