Monday, 6 August 2012

It's a wild world

Musical –
Producer/Company –
Sue Farrelly, Executive Producer
Venue –
Princess Theatre, Melbourne
Date and time –
Thursday, 31 July, 7.00pm
Cast –
Major cast members –
Gareth Keegan, Gemma-Ashley Kaplan, Jolyon James, Sally Bourne, Tony Cogin, Rodney Dobson, Robert Grubb, Blake Bowden, Marney McQueen.
Major creative team members –
Cat Stevens/Yusef, Rachel Wagstaff, Anders Albien, Stephen Amos, Yvette Lee.

Cat Stevens is well-known for a string of popular songs and albums from the 1960s-70s. These songs include: ‘Matthew and Son’, ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, ‘Wild World’, ‘Peace Train’, ‘Morning Has Broken’, ‘Remember the Days’, and ‘Moonshadow’. The last of these songs is the title of the musical featuring Steven’s songs, which played its premiere season in Melbourne from May until August 2012.

Cat Stevens famously converted to Islam in the late 1970s, changing his name to Yusef Islam, or simply Yusef as he is now known. When embracing his new faith, Yusef gave up his music and the subsequent fame for twenty-five years, retiring to undertake philanthropic work. In the 1990s, he again became active in music, and he then started releasing albums in the mid-2000s under the name of Yusef. This duality is reflected in the credits for ‘Moonshadow’, which lists it as ‘Created by Yusef’, with ‘Songs by Cat Stevens’.

‘Moonshadow’ is a jukebox musical in a similar vein to ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘We Will Rock You’. The show features the previously mentioned Cat Stevens’ songs, as well as many new songs from the musician’s new career as Yusef. All of these pieces are hung upon the frame of a plot created to showcase the material.

The central story of ‘Moonshadow’ is similar to Romeo and Juliet; two star-crossed lovers held apart by family issues. The main action of the story, though, is the journey undertaken by the lead male character, ‘Stormy’. He embarks upon an odyssey to solve the central concern of the story, which is the absence of a sustainable source of light and heat for the people who populate the planet of ‘Alaylia’, the setting for the musical.

Unfortunately, ‘Moonshadow’ doesn’t quite succeed in the way that the other previously mentioned jukebox musicals do. The somewhat confusing plot – which tends to meanders throughout, borrowed as it seems to have been from a number of sources – concludes with a final resolution sequence that seems too simplistic. The well-known Cat Stevens’ songs are effectively interwoven into the plot, yet the rest of the new, pleasant enough pieces by Yusef lacks emotional resonance and tends to feel like filler material.

In the lead role of ‘Stormy’, Gareth Keegan has been directed to play the role quite broadly. The same is the case with another pivotal role, that of ‘Moonshadow’ played by Jolyon James. The result is that the talented actors playing both characters, with whom we spend most of the show, often lack the depth needed for the audience to better engage with the story and the action.

The production benefits greatly from the presence of strong leading ladies. Gemma-Ashley Kaplan gives a winning performance as ‘Lisa’, Stormy’s love interest. And Sally Bourne, as Stormy’s mother ‘Layla’, stops the show with her stunning ballad rendition of ‘Wild World’. The villain of the piece, ‘Princess Zeena’, is played with great relish by Marney McQueen. Unfortunately, their characters – like a number of others in this musical – seem somewhat underwritten, and so they many of the principal roles don’t effectively enough assist the audience to connect with the overall piece.

The design of ‘Moonshadow’ has clearly been a major focus for the creative team, and it was beautifully realised. The sets, costumes and effectively animated backdrops gave a wonderful sense of a modern resetting of the ‘Arabian Nights’. Kudos go to Jolyon James who spent the entire show on stilts as the character ‘Moonshadow’, making him appear more than eight feet tall.

Unfortunately, the overall superior look and feel of ‘Moonshadow’, coupled with the wonderful Cat Stevens’ songs, are not quite enough to make up for some of the deficiencies with the writing and structure of the show. This seems to be reflected in the box office for the production, as it is closing much earlier than expected, and the producers apparently don’t plan to tour within Australia in the near future. I think an intense period of revision of this show would be the best suggestion, perhaps combined with additional creative talents who could then lend a fresh set of eyes with a view to this musical’s future incarnations.

Beautifully trippy
(The Abusicals two-word summary is, of course, tongue-in-cheek.)

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