Paris: A Rock Odyssey

Paris: A Rock Odyssey
By Jon English and David Mackay. Music Theatre Melbourne (In Association with Stella Entertainment). Melbourne Recital Centre. 13th to 15th July, 2017

A buzzing full house at the MRC was the perfect audience for the first professional performance of Jon English's passion project: a retelling of the Trojan Wars, with the spotlight thrown on the doomed love of Paris of Troy and the beautiful Helen.

A concert performance was the right choice to showcase this work.  The costumes were an eclectic blend of Greek legend meets rock legend, a fitting look for a tribute to the multi-talented, history-obsessed Jon English.  

The orchestra, under the baton of musical director Isaac Hayward, was sublime.  Hayward walked the fine line between epic rock opera and fulsome musical seemingly effortlessly, pulling all sorts of colours and nuances from the music, but still allowing the music to howl through its rock paces as the score dictated.  

With the women in white chitons, the men in black, and all wearing purple mantles, the chorus deserve special mention.  The musicality, passion and overwhelming strength of their singing in gloriously disciplined ensemble was a highlight of the show. Acting as both literal and metaphorical Greek chorus, providing emotional colour to the performance, acting as the joyous, then horrified people of Troy, and even as the soundtrack to the final fight between Hector and Achilles, their fierce commitment to the piece was evident in every moment.

As well as the stunning lighting design, what truly lifted this piece into a tour de force was the screen behind the performers, which showed typewritten stage directions and lyrics from the stage show, which gave the audience a glimpse of the entire work, and did the heavy lifting to connect the various sections together, so that the concert version flowed naturally.  A series of beautiful sepia animations stood in for the sea, battles and the famous Trojan Horse. Showing those typewritten excerpts was a poignant reminder of the battle Jon English had to get Paris in front of audiences, and its long journey to the amateur, and then the professional stage.

The principal singers were another mix - a who's who of Australian music stood alongside talented younger performers.

As Paris and his Helen, Matthew Manahan and Madeleine Featherby evolved from young, troubled lovers sidelined by their power-hungry families (with Helen showing far more political savvy than the optimistic Paris), to powerhouse performers as the Trojan war dragged on. Both showed they could move from their "I wish" songs, to tender duets, to belting out the Act 1 finale "Hell or High Water".  

Scott Johnson (Hector) was suitably sarcastic and world-weary as the designated grown-up brother, fighting his way through the disaster Paris brings back to his family.  John O'May and Shirley Bowen added a touch of gravitas and dignity as King Priam and Queen Hecuba, fatefully indulging their younger son until the very end.  

One of the best moments in the show is the introduction of the Greek kings and warriors in the fantastically-written song "Business", which gave a different cast to the usual tale of a war of revenge.  To see Tim Freedman take command of the stage as the scheming, avaricious Agamemnon was wonderful, but as he is joined by John Waters as Ulysses, Mark Dickinson as Menelaus and Tod Strike as Patroclus, the song became a masterclass in stage presence.  The Greek ensemble was completed later in the show with the addition of Ben Mingay adding his brute vocals as a brawling, machismo Achilles. 

There were notable contributions from Cameron McDonald, Daniel Cosgrove, Annie Aitken, and Caitlyn Quinn in a variety of smaller roles.   But it was Brian Mannix as the hapless, drunk, Sinon, who was pitch-perfect as he delivered the single comic song "Inside Outside" with up-and-comers Jack O'Riley and Jordon Mahar.  (Mannix wore the single authentic Greek costume in the entire production, but his character Sinon managed to make it look delightfully degenerate.)

The standout performance for me was Kerrie Anne Greenland as the prophetess Cassandra, doomed to see the future but never be believed.  She dominated the stage in the epic "Prologue", and then again with her rendition of the spine-tingling "Oh Paris" in Act 2.  Her tireless, powerful voice handled these difficult songs with consummate ease.  

The epic scope of Paris and the odyssey of musical discovery it afforded was a testament to Jon English's talent and vision.  Paris could easily take its place alongside other mega-musicals of the 1990s, with its drive, momentum and beautifully-written songs.  The quest for the Great Australian Musical seems partially fulfilled with the advent of Paris in a professional production.  The audience happily gave the cast and orchestra a standing ovation.

The performance concluded with a final, touching tribute to Jon English - his photo appeared on the screen as a recording of his voice singing "Love Has Power" was accompanied by the orchestra, with his son, Jon Sora-English, featured on guitar.   

If you can get tickets, I'd recommend seeing this almost-perfect storm of Australian music and performers.

Alex Armstrong


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