Words and Music: Michael John LaChiusa
Director: Paul Callen
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, a daisy chain of duologues in which one scene partner continues into the next scene, has been the source of, and inspiration for, a variety of productions over the years. From straightforward updates such as David Hare’s The Blue Roomto more obliquely influenced shows such as recent fringe musical Fiver, the structure Schnitzler came up with allows for a sequence of otherwise unrelated playlets to form a greater, unified whole.
Michael John LaChiusa, a musical theatre composer who has never been afraid to play with form, manages to both closely stick to Schnitzler’s construction – a series of sexual encounters – and to subvert it by setting each scene in a different time period. Thus, while each actor may daisy chain to the next scene and play the same type of character, they must play two different roles – so Alice Ellen Wright plays a Nurse in both 1942 and 1965, while the WW2 soldier she meets in her first scene (Jack Rowell) had previously been seen enlisting the services of Ellen O’Grady’s Whore in 1900.
The ever-shifting time periods allow for LaChiusa to mine every era of the twentieth century American musical canon for inspiration, resulting in one of his typically luscious scores, even when re-orchestrated by musical director Henry Brennan for piano, cello and drums.
Director Paul Callen plays these ten stories out on a bare stage, relying on Ben Bull’s striking lighting design to infuse the Union’s beautifully cavernous space the atmosphere befitting each scene. The use of red backlighting, placing the actors in silhouette as they have sex, may flirt with cliché, but it provides the sort of link between disparate scenes that matches LaChiusa’s own links with character names and other small motifs.
Callen’s ensemble of ten actors produce some fine character moments, complemented by Genevieve Leeney’s choreography – Regan Burke’s pastiche of a Fred Astaire number as his character, who is meeting his married lover in a movie theatre, stresses about impotence being a particular delight.
One of the bigger faults with the piece at large is that its first few scenes have a very gender-skewed view of sex and sexuality. In these early scenes, it is the only the men who have any prospect of satisfaction from sexual encounter: not until Grace Roberts’s Young Wife sings “Tom” – a powerhouse performance from an actor with enormous potential – does the balance begin to seem redressed.
From there and into the second act, we are treated to better, more interesting stories as LaChiusa gets into the swing of his storytelling. While each encounter lasts barely longer than a single song, we begin to see encounters that offer tantalising prospects of larger tales: a scene set aboard the sinking Titanic perfectly combines LaChiusa’s ear for musical form and a sense of bleak comedy, and is thankfully interpreted far better than Queen of the Mist, another John Michael LaChiusa musical currently playing in London, ever attempts.
That scene, and its nine partners, recognise one thing – that seeking an easy route to happiness through sex is impossible. David Pendlebury’s Senator, the last character to be introduced, says as much. The only glimpses of satisfaction that Hello Again promises us are those where we give up that particular power struggle, and replace the transaction of sex with the much more valuable asset of love.
For an evocation of that spirit, for an interpretation of John Michael LaChiusa’s work that shows exactly how majestic his work can be in the right hands, the Union have a created a winner.
Continues until 21 September 2019 | Image: Mark Senior