Despite the genuinely intriguing premise described in its promotional materials, Genesis to Broadway flounders in a mish mash of styles, tone and content. Ineffective, unfunny and often inaccurate, the show is a grab bag of party pieces in which the whole is much less than of the sum of its parts.
Entering to find a black box stage with a couple of costume-laden coat stands and a prop table, the “spectacle” mentioned on the flier seems noticeably absent. Also somewhat deceptive on the flier is the boast that the MD is joined by “a superb cast of singers, actors and musicians,” whereas there are only two performers and two further musicians.
Writer/Director Frank Howson mixes Jewish history, American history and groan-worthy jokes as old as some of the music being presented in an attempt to link styles of music on Broadway to their cultural and historical roots. One early successful sequence links Spanish music to Man of La Mancha, but further efforts are lost in the jumble of presentation styles and erratic timeline. Most significantly, the arrangements of musical director Warren Wills completely undermine the commentary, as they are almost all presented as distinct and individual arrangements. Many of these arrangements are very good, but to illustrate the background and influences of the composers, surely the music must be presented in its original form.
Wills demonstrates virtuosic skills on the grand piano, with strong support from excellent musicians Lachlan Davidson on woodwind and Gideon Marcus on percussion.
While the premise is originally stated as covering a range of world music styles, as the show progresses it becomes clearer that the primary focus is on the contribution of Jewish artists. Al Jolson, Oscar Hammerstein and Lionel Bart are discussed at length but when the songs of composers such as Galt MacDermot (Hair) and Alain Boublil & Claude Michel Schönberg (Les Miserables) are featured their names go unmentioned. On the other hand, songs of Jewish composers such as Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern are sung without discussion of these artists thus clouding my interpretation of the focus. (Curiously, Oklahoma! (1943) and Showboat (1927) are discussed as if they came after Cabaret (1966). Also, before being accurately described as highly optimistic, Hammerstein is credited as bring intellect to Broadway, yet this is not a widely held opinion).
Where was the discussion of the African influences in The Lion King and The Colour Purple or calypso influences in Once On This Island? Indigenous American music in Big River? The evocation of Argentina in Evita and Vietnam in Miss Saigon? In discussion of the arrival of rock on Broadway, the year of most significance is 1967, when Hair opened, initially off-Broadway, yet Hair is presented as if written in the 1970s.
Given all of the Jewish focus in the material, including a couple of early songs in Hebrew, an element that seems quite jarring is that the Jewish jokes and characters/accents in the “sketches” are grossly stereotypical to the point of being borderline offensive.
The two singers, Fem Belling and Andrew Dunne, are certainly working hard with the material they have been given. The likeable Dunne has a fine baritone, impressing early on with “The Impossible Dream,” but songs needing a bit more flair and nuance are not as successful. Belling has a charming speaking voice and, when singing softly, a sweet singing voice. “Over the Rainbow” is a lovely example of Belling at her best. Her high volume showstopper voice, however, borders on shouting. Belling copes somewhat better than Dunne with the occasional moments of choreography, and her violin number, though impressive, is an example of the sort of party tricks included for no clear purpose.
With the songs in other languages, care has obviously been taken to sing with expression and meaning, but overall the inclusion of such songs impedes audience engagement. Ultimately, the audience is sang at, rather loudly, but not involved in any sort of illuminating journey. Still, audiences are always impressed by loud volume, and the friendly opening night audience gave the performers a standing ovation.
One last particularly egregious moment to mention: the butchering of Sondheim’s beloved anthem “I’m Still Here,” turned into a sappy duet and rewritten to include references to Kevin 07, Julia Gillard, Frankston and Toorak. Thank goodness this was not on stage when the most revered of composers was in town during November.
This review published on Theatre People 13 December 2012