In an auspicious world premiere season, Music Theatre Melbourne takes audiences back to the garishly colourful 1980s in Electric Dreams, a new Australian musical based on the cultish 1984 film.
Billed as a “staged workshop development production,” the brief season is relatively light on production values but high on talent, allowing Drew Lane’s score to be performed at an optimal level.
The 1960s have featured in far more than their share of musicals, so a 1980s musical is an inspired choice. Electric Dreams returns to a time when young people (even musicians!) could afford to live in the city; fashions were bright, hair was big and pay phones were key for communication on the move.
Part Little Shop of Horrors and part Cyrano de Bergerac, the storyline sees nerdy architect Miles buy a home computer to aid his design of an earthquake resistant brick. After spilling coffee on the computer, it comes to life with a personality named Edgar, which begins to aggressively interfere with Miles’ life, particularly his love life with new neighbour Madeline. Thinking that Miles is playing the music she hears, Madeline begins to fall in love with Miles, a feeling boosted when Edgar composes a love song that Miles uses to woo Madeline.
Lane has done a Meredith Willson, penning the book, lyrics and score for Electric Dreams. The music is instantly accessible, cleverly and seamlessly picking up on the synthesiser tones of the movie’s hit song “Together in Electric Dreams” (by Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder). The score is well balanced, generally moving the storytelling along and keeping energy high with ensemble numbers. Edgar’s composition “That’s Love” is a charming highlight, with another being “Love is What We’re Made of,” as friends Frank and Millie counsel a heartbroken Madeline. The scene where Edgar responds to Madeline’s cello playing with electronic harmonies is a real winner.
Lane acts as music director, playing piano as he leads a tight band of five fellow musicians. On opening night, music initially swamped vocals, with balance improving quickly as the performance continued. Overall, sound design did not make it particularly easy to listen to the new and unfamiliar lyrics, much as the quality of the singing voices could be readily appreciated.
Based on Rusty Lemorande’s original screenplay, the story works as a romantic comedy coloured with a unique angle of nostalgia. It is uncanny to see the way that communication with Edgar, and its connection to appliances and online information, so closely mirrors the current predilection for Alexa, Siri and the like. Much as the songs work well, the book generally lacks sufficient tension and drive to successfully sustain a running time of 140 minutes (including interval). Fortunately, the appeal of the cast and the energy of the performances maintain plenty of audience good will.
Director/choreographer Roman Berry infuses the show with bright, energetic performances, amusing the Gen X and older audience members with some distinctive 1980s dance moves. Berry works with the slender production elements to help the audience use their imagination to see the full picture. The central love triangle works well, and it is a nice touch to have Owen James (the voice of Edgar) to appear on stage during one of his final songs.
Lachie McFarlane provides a clever concept for the setting, with projections on a large framed screen showing the audience the face of “Edgar.” The animated projections add amusing flair to the storytelling, taking the audience back to the simple green pixels of early home computing. Embedded LED lighting strips add sparkle to the stage setting.
McFarlane is also credited with costumes, along with Berry and Jannette Raynes. The ensemble cast of ten make a number of costume changes and there are some humorous throwbacks in there. A full production would most likely include some more specific 1980s atrocities.
Tom Green is a terrific discovery in the lead role of Miles, singing with a truly gorgeous tenor voice. Lane’s material is strong, and Green makes it sound even better. This is the sort of musical theatre voice that would prompt the purchase of a cast recording just to hear more of it. Green embraces Miles’ nerdy vibe, creating an appealingly meek hero.
Seen as the female lead in Paris, Madeleine Featherby gives another polished, engaging performance as spunky young cellist Madeline. Featherby displays a powerhouse belt, nicely balanced with sweeter tones for gentler numbers. Featherby enjoys solid chemistry with Green, making for a sweet romance.
The roles of friends Bill and Millie are bumped up for the musical, with the vibrant pair soon beginning their own hot and heavy romance. Professional music theatre performer Stephen Mahy is a champion of independent musical theatre, and gives another excellent performance here. Angela Scundi brings out the sassy personality of Millie, joining Mahy to show off athletic dance moves in act one duet “Play With Me.” The pair later delivers sweet harmonies in “Love is What We’re Made of.”
Largely unseen, James bring abundant character to the voice of Edgar.
The ensemble cast is completed by Anthony Scundi (with hair turbo blowdried to represent the Hoff in early charm song “Classical Hasselhoff”), Zak Brown, Sophie Loughran, Aidan Niarros and Courtney Smyth.
Future incarnations of Electric Dreams will be anticipated with keen interest.
Electric Dreams plays at Gasworks, Albert Park until 24 November 2019.