A satire about satire, new Eddie Perfect musical Vivid White is as surprising as it is amusing, as familiar as it is shocking, and as polarising as it is entertaining.
A comedy about the cutthroat Melbourne real estate market may sound neatly predictable, but Perfect twists the tale with audacious flair, raising the stakes exponentially with a surreal sci-fi scenario that puts a physical threat in place of the abstract malaise of affluenza.
A series of scenes tells the story in broad strokes, interspersed with witty, tuneful songs on topics such as rescue dogs, waiting for a plumber and soft close drawers. Design and storytelling are in perfect synchronisation, with the iris-like curtains opening and closing their aperture on intimate settings for the initial scenes, before opening to full width for the extended final scene.
Ben (Brent Hill) and Liz (Verity Hunt-Ballard) have a dated kitchen that certainly does not have soft close drawers. Leaving behind Ben, Liz and their satire band, Evan (Ben Mingay) sold out for commercial success, meaning that he and second wife Cynthia (Christina O’Neill) are more likely to win the auction for the North Fitzroy house that both couples desire.
As the relatively straightforward story unfolds, a mostly unseen peril causes growing unease. Melbourne is in the grip of a cephalopod attack, and their leader Goose Güüs can invade susceptible minds. Tentacles wave ominously overhead, and it seems that renters are the primary objects of destruction. Just as the term “Okies” takes on a derogatory meaning in The Grapes of Wrath, so the word “Renters” becomes a damning slur, a word that can barely be spoken. Freshly painted vivid white, the North Fitzroy home is the scene for the final desperate showdown, not just between owners and renters but also between cephalopods and the human race.
Along the way, Perfect skewers the pretense of renovating, the vagary of millenials, the artifice of colour experts and the superficiality of financial success, as well as showing us what really happen when real estate agents go inside mid-auction. Humiliating Houses is surely the most believable joke television title since 30 Rock’s MILF Island. The meta aspect of analysing satire within a satire is a bold, risky move that generally pays dividends. Whether the show would have a been better as a straight satire is just one point up for post-show discussion.
Director Dean Bryant has shown a sure hand in shaping the new work, bringing a musical theatre lexicon and sharpening the verbal humour with judicious use of physical comedy. The cast plays a number of roles, and these are clearly and insightfully drawn.
The production neatly sidesteps the considerable expense of musical theatre with a couple of clever moves. MTC’S Southbank neighbour Victorian College of the Arts has a Music Theatre course that is fast becoming Australia’s best, and the six-member chorus is drawn from a pool of 19 second year students. Secondly, the extraordinarily talented principal cast members not only act and sing but also assemble downstage to form a band that accompanies all the songs.
Most of these actors have taken part in imported, franchised mega-musicals, and there is the strong sense that this project has provided a wonderful opportunity to “play,” with ringmaster Bryant overseeing a welcome outpouring of freedom of expression. The instrumental work unleashes yet another facet of the actors’ considerable talents. Fans of musical theatre will thrill to see these performers in this context.
Choice choreographer Andrew Hallsworth embraces the satirical approach, contributing a delightful wheelie bin ballet and a crisp pas de deux about settling for suburbs ever further from the CBD. Hallsworth’s finale is a glossy nod to the climax of A Chorus Line.
Owen Phillips efficiently spreads the set design budget over a multitude of scenes, surprising the audience each time the curtains reveal another new setting. The fully realised vivid white home is a real showpiece, with hidden surprises that will not be revealed here.
Inestimable costume designer Tim Chappel serves up a dazzling array of costumes, many of which can be instantly cast off for onstage quick changes. The preponderance of parachute fabric leisure suits brings back a ghastly chapter of fashion history to comical effect. Class, status and taste are clearly delineated in wardrobe, and the only finishing touch lacking was having someone on hairstyle design.
Musical director James Simpson has done an extraordinary job, not just with orchestrating Perfect’s songs, but with tailoring the orchestrations for the specific talents of the cast, and then adjusting this to which performers are available for each song.
The show’s final moments may be just a little close to Little Shop of Horrors, but creature designer A Blanck Canvas has ensured that the creature herself is highly original and spectacularly functional.
Hill, Hunt-Ballard, Mingay and O’Neill are joined by Virginia Gay, Gillian Cosgriff and Keegan Joyce to form a slick, well-matched ensemble of terrific performers.
Hill captures the frequently demoralising pressure of staying true to your art. Hunt-Ballard conveys the frazzle of living with the gnawing desire for more. Mingay has the suave swagger of a spoilt television host who is largely sheltered from the real world. O’Neill underpins the brittle veneer of financial success with a simmering vulnerability.
Gay enjoys the dominatrix real estate broker, Brenda, and brings wonderful expression to the voice of Güüs. Joyce demonstrates a flair for character roles that belies his boyish good looks. Cosgriff proves a wonderfully adaptable performer, immersing herself in a number of roles as well as contributing mightily to the music.
Unlike this week’s other world premiere Australian musical, which has well-placed intentions of playing all over the world, Vivid White is crafted for a here and now experience. Audiences may rightly be divided over the content, but the high quality of the production and performances cannot be disputed.
The Vivid White program can be read online.
Vivid White plays at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 23 December 2017.
Man in Chair attended the final preview of Vivid White.
Photos: Jeff Busby