Quite possibly the best rock musical you’ve never heard, heroic 1990 rock opera Paris is given a starry concert staging that serves both to return the epic work to public prominence and also pay tribute to its revered co-composer Jon English.
As concert stagings go, Paris is produced on a very impressive scale, featuring 46 performers, 14 musicians, crisp direction, spectacular lighting, mighty sound and creative costuming. Short run concerts can often be performed book in hand, but the full cast and chorus are well and truly off book here, allowing the show to be presented in the best possible light.
English’s note on the original studio cast recording states that Paris is primarily a love story, and acknowledges that the plot is based on the mythology surrounding the Trojan War without slavishly following established “facts.” Co-composer David Mackay has worked to streamline the book, particularly in regard to periphery characters. The result is a gripping story that is bold, majestic and easy to follow.
The restless young Prince of Troy sets sail for Greece but is almost drowned in a storm. Washed ashore, Paris is instantly smitten with the beautiful Helen, wife of Greek King Menelaus, and their illicit passion is a spark in the Trojan War. Much of the ensuing bloodshed derives from various characters’ deceits and weaknesses, all driving to a tragic finale for the ill-fated lovers.
While Paris’ opening I wish song, “Straight Ahead,” is vague at best, act one quickly gathers steam on its way to thrilling Trojan finale “Hell to High Water.” Act two loses focus slightly during the Ten Year War sequence, but regains momentum in climactic battlefield deaths involving Patroclus, Hector, Achilles and Paris.
Director Neil Gooding presents a fully acted performance, with the “concert” tag only really referring to the band being on stage and the general absence of scenery. Storytelling is clear and engaging, the passionate love story helping to sweep the audience into action. The heavily male-centric characters are clearly distinguished thanks to confident direction, interesting writing and excellent casting.
Dramatic storytelling aside, the chief attraction is the world-class score by English. Written at the height of the rock opera’s popularity, Paris has the through-sung momentum of works by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Boublil & Schönberg, with a similar level of melodic invention as heard in Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson’s Chess. In the search for the great Australian musical, the romantic sweep and instant hummability of the score of Paris places it well above the grab bag of styles heard in King Kong and Strictly Ballroom.
The style of Paris also compares very favourably to current Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, especially given the fresh orchestrations heard in this current season. Fast-rising young musical director Isaac Hayward ably demonstrates why he is one to watch, with his keyboard and drum programming enhancing the music to a rich, full sound. Expertly conducting the band on stage, Hayward’s quirky presence is another aspect of the entertainment. Hayward’s exacting preparation of the Chorus, aided by Martine Wengrow, fills the singing with glorious harmonies.
The production is judiciously light on scenery and lavish on costumes and lighting. Costumes, by Janette Raynes and Mark Raynes, are a visually appealing mix of modern elements, mostly in black, with strong ties to period silhouettes and accessories. Stuart Smith and Andrew Sampford’s eye-catching animated projections support the storytelling and are connected by an attractive design style. The stage spectacle is capped off by Jason Bovaird’s grand lighting design, which fills the overhead space with lush, atmospheric colour and mighty beams of light.
There is not a weak link to be found in the leading players. Casting is notably strong, with all levels of experience represented, from legends (John Waters, John O’May, Tim Freedman, Brian Mannix) to experienced, high profile musical theatre performers (Ben Mingay, Kerrie Anne Greenland) to experienced, highly valued supporting players (Mark Dickinson, Scott Johnson, Tod Strike, Cameron MacDonald) to talented up and comers (Jack O’Riley, Jordon Mahar).
Young discoveries Matthew Manahan and Madeleine Featherby give breakout performances as Paris and Helen, singing the show’s best tunes with a mixture of sweetness and strength. Manahan has a legitimate rock musical voice that belies his tender appearance, and he belts with an unwavering power that easily matches his more experienced stage counterparts.
Greenland is in superb voice as frustrated prophet Cassandra, setting the bar high with her soaring vocals in “Prologue” and bringing the show to a highly memorable climax with “Oh Paris.”
Highlights from the male cast include, but are certainly not limited to, Dickinson’s awesome bass in act one’s “A Thief in the Night” and Waters’ whispering menace in “Ulysses’ Prayer.” Ably supported by O’Riley and Mahar, Mannix nails the show’s one comic song, “Inside Outside,” as the drunken trio prepares to man the iconic Trojan Horse.
After a rousing standing ovation on opening night, the evening was brought to a very moving end with a tribute to composer Jon English. As his photo was displayed overhead, English’s vocals for “Love Has Power” were accompanied by the band, with a spotlight on English’s son Jonathan Sora-English.
Paris is very highly recommended, especially for fans of the score who have not heard it live on stage since Stella Entertainment’s 2004 production at National Theatre.
Paris plays at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre until 15 July 2017.
Photos: Ben Fon