Theatre of the Damned really are a breath of fresh air that Melbourne should be envious of. Not only are they a seemingly well-funded (for a production company of their stature) little group that knows how to entertain audiences, but they show a diversity of casting and an intuition for nailing just some of those roles that surpasses so much of the safe succession of “Cosi” renditions ever-available to the Melbourne public.
In their third production, one of those absolutely nailed roles is Kethly Hemsworth as Velma Kelly. The first time I saw her, it was in “Abigail’s Party” at The Potato Shed, just outside of Geelong, and I was struck by the power she seemed to carry in her slight frame. A few years later, she’s a version of Velma that’s never, to my knowledge, been seen before; she’s forty years old. She’s had three children. She’s got some rockin’ tattoos. As soon as she and the chorus dancers, some of whom also sport some cool ink, it was obvious that this was Chicago in much the same way the dancers in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were cheerleaders. There’s an edge. It’s called Theatre of the Damned, after all. But more than just physicality, Hemsworth gives Velma a wold-weariness, a desperation to cling on to what once was, a mature edge on her rival Roxie Hart that didn’t show itself even in the Oscar-winning film. An inspired choice.
That said, if Theatre of the Damned can improve anywhere, it’s in the acting. Shani Clarke plays young Roxie, and it’s clear she understands character work, as evidenced by her performance as Melvin’s blind beloved in “The Toxic Avenger”, she is also a wonderful dancer and has a gorgeous and expertly refined singing voice, but her truth as an actor needs to come from within. She doesn’t trust the emotional truth that our bodies all create when we read a script in private, and the result is, as in Toxie, a well-overblown performance. She has a certain charisma; it’s hard to look at other people when she’s on, and with good tutoring and long hours she could become a wonderful, intuitive and disciplined actor to complete her triple-threat. Andrew Perry as Billy Flynn was much the same; truly a magnificent singer but requiring less focus on the lines and more on the truth behind them, and finding it internally, would make him the formidable performer he could be.
Ditto much of the chorus. Beautiful dancers and singers, utterly captivating in every pirouette and coupling high-note, but less would be more. “Cell Block Tango” needs more than just expert timing and scales and arpeggios, it needs honesty.
Shaynbe Lowe’s Matron Morton was a great example of acting-singing-dancing, and she uses her physical presence brilliantly in every scene, from the humorous to the heartbreaking. Another two treats are the return from Toxie of Liam Erk and Alicia Miller, Erk this time showing his range in drag by playing Mary Sunshine and Miller playing Magyar inmate Hunyak, both are their usual great form.
As usual, the music was brilliant and provided by a live orchestra, this time conducted by William Conway, while the captivating dances were choreographed by Jordan Punsalang. Theatre of the Damned have come from the far-afield fringe of Toxie to the very heartland of musical theatre with this beloved classic, and shown that they can make either one endearing, entertaining and somehow strangely sweet. A fine night out, because we all need something a little different, from time to time.
Written by Max Davine