The Tuxedo and The Little Black Dress.

The Tuxedo and The Little Black Dress.
By Louis Nowra and Stewart D’Arietta. Director: Christopher Parker Chapel off Chapel 27 Sept – 14 Oct, 2012 (preview 26th). World Premiere.

Louis Nowra is justifiably one of our most esteemed playwrights. Stewart D’Arietta is a renowned musician noted for his work on Through a Glass Onion and his “Tom Waits” show in various incarnations. I am an unabashed fan of their work. I’ve been looking forward to this production for some months and even took a bunch of friends with me. It’s therefore disappointing and bewildering to have to ponder why their new show doesn’t work the way it should.

The premise is sound, and full of potential. Jack, a cynical cocktail pianist (Stewart D’Arietta) and Anouk (Rebecca Mendoza), a much younger woman in a loveless marriage, are trapped by an earthquake in the grand ballroom of a Blue Mountains hotel. So far, so good, and a delicious sense of anticipation is created. But then, while waiting to be rescued, they fill their time by telling their life stories and singing about various things, most of which are not directly connected to their current situation or their relationship – a cardinal sin in musical theatre terms.

The show starts with a very impressive soundscape of an earthquake, and the first five minutes involve Anouk trying to find a way out. From that point, there are more cracks in the credibility of the script than any earthquake could muster. It isn’t simply that there is a lack of any chemistry or intimacy between the two actors, or that character development consists of giving us more information (exposition) about their pasts, without truly engaging us emotionally. There is a real opportunity to explore a growing relationship in the face of possible death that has been missed entirely and that is a shame. Because of the lack of emotional engagement, one starts to see the inconsistencies in the script and the direction. Anouk is there in the grand ballroom for a night of dancing with a girlfriend….to a cocktail pianist? She has spent all her life in The Blue Mountains, and yet she sings with a distinct and affected American accent (Miss Mendoza is a very fine soul singer indeed, as those of us who have seen her at Bennett’s Lane will attest, but her vocal inflection is heavily stylised). Neither performer, with their stunning musical backgrounds, appears to have sufficient acting skills to understand the necessary development of the journey between the characters. And whenever a few lines of dialogue bring us close to empathising with them, the moment is broken by yet another song which is disconnected to their present plight. There are 15 songs in all (In a 75 minute show), mostly performed in shades of Motown. None of them are bad, but not one of them is a song you would remember five minutes after leaving the theatre. The show is crying out for a big ballad of introspection and regret….a genuine journey. Some songs are totally incongruous, like the Zombie Dance, a fun piece which has no place in the context of the story. Even the denouement, as the rescue team arrives, that they have, in fact, been dead all along (but don’t know it), is no surprise, though the following song, “One Step Together”, where Jack and Anouk confess they are falling in love ( they’re dead, remember?) was confusing to some of the audience.

Director Chris Parker has made some strange choices. Everything is played to the audience, in cabaret mode, which rarely works in a “book” or “story” show and further diffuses credibility. He has Anouk jumping on and off the piano stool for no apparent reason, other than to break up the danger of a “talking heads” piece. When she dances it is not with the grace of a trained ballerina (which she is) but in an overtly sexual manner which is incongruous given the character and her circumstances. This is a repressed woman. If her dancing started quite self-consciously and stilted and then lead to abandonment, at least that would denote character growth.  Why does Jack put on a full length fur coat to play one song, whilst Anouk is clearly warm enough in a little black dress? While it is established earlier that the hotel is beautiful in winter with the snow on it, the context of the remark makes it clear that it isn’t snowbound at this stage. Why is there no consistency in the mental state of the characters, no growing alarm or sense of trepidation? The cliché of the incriminating text message from the philandering husband, is simply one more disappointment which could have been handled with so much more finesse, and it leads to a discussion about internet dating from Jack’s POV, when Anouk should be in agony over her husband’s betrayal.

The audience barely reacted to most of the show and I have never seen the foyer of my favourite theatre clear so quickly. As one woman remarked “I put on lipstick for this!”

I desperately wanted this to be a stunning new musical and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that sometime, somewhere, with extensive workshopping and soul searching, it can be reworked to realise its potential.

Coral Drouyn

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