Classic Melbourne found some emotion if not quite passion at the Melbourne Arts Centre Playhouse, in a play by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine presented by welcome new music theatre performers, Like Life Company.
The work is a one act setting of a story of desperate love, passion and obsession. The handsome soldier Giorgio is in a relationship with a married woman. When sent to another posting, he meets Fosca who is ill with nervous convulsions and a desperate need for connection. Despite himself, he becomes emotionally involved with her until he realises that he loves her because no-one has truly loved him for himself before. But it all ends tragically.
Producer, Anton Berezin, has established this story of the human heart, obsession and mental illness in time of war well. The minimal setting, the lighting and light orchestration force attention to the emotions and the variety of notions of love.
This story is developed through a series of letters with transitions – some sung, some in dialogue and some comedic. This allowed for some powerful stage moments such as when Carla is writing about remembering the touch of Giorgio’s hand, whilst on stage we see his hand being held by Fosca.
The show depends upon the quality of the three main characters: Captain Giorgio Bachetti played by Kane Alexander; Clara, his married lover played by Silvie Paladino; and Fosca, the cousin of Giorgio’s commander, played by Theresa Borg. All three have had wide experience in opera and major musicals.
Alexander and Paladino worked well and brought out a convincing relationship. Beautifully gowned and in good voice, Paladino was completely charming. Her voice was a little brittle in the top register at times and the miking did not help this. When the music allowed, she gave a lovely melodic line and her acting was convincing throughout.
The role of Fosca is very demanding, requiring the audience to relate to a quite selfish and manipulative ill woman. Borg has a powerful and dramatic voice, though sometimes the lower register was uneven. Again, the mic emphasised this. But she was not always able to bring the audience with her in the emotions which sometimes led to nervous, embarrassed laughter in the audience at inappropriate moments. Not all the fault lies with the actor; her dialogue is, at times, so close to banality and pettiness that it is difficult to see it as passion but at times her spoken voice was not up to conveying the emotion. It was declamatory rather than emotional.
Alexander had the good looks and the good voice to portray Giorgio. At times his acting presence was a little awkward which left him slightly less charismatic. His singing was at its best when he was describing love as a gift to bestow. Another highlight was in the dream sequence where he used his sense of crescendo to great effect. The song “Just another love story” signals the change of his affair with Clara to the love of Fosca, but he did not quite convince here.
Supporting characters did well. Mark Dickson was strong as Colonel Ricci and had a nicely modulated singing voice that effectively created a sensitive character. The Doctor, John O’May, and other stock characters of the male cast sang well. It was an effective choral cast but not always balanced. What was disappointing was that the audience were not able to accept men performing women’s role without guffawing. That laughter almost made the scene of Fosca’s betrayal become a joke, instead of the moment when we see reasons for her mental instability.
One scene brought together all aspects of this production in a most moving manner – the final bedroom scene between Giorgio and Fosca. After an unfortunate scene change which had the audience laughing, the pair sang together with great emotion, the orchestra were wonderful in supporting them, and the set and lighting gave a tremendous intimacy to the scene. It was very moving and a real highlight.
The orchestration was an interesting mix of strings, reeds, horns, trumpet, percussion and two keyboards. The mics sometimes caused the reeds to sound a bit thin, but overall the orchestra supported the cast’s singing and bought out the play’s melodic sweeps and drama. Particularly haunting were the reeds, in Carla’s song about the changes in Giorgio.
As mentioned already the set and lighting were simple but effective. The set made the scenes roll into each other effortlessly. The lighting, with much use of side lights, created desolate rocky mountain-scapes through to intimate bedroom scenes. It also greatly increased the tension of the duel scene.
The Life Like Company is a new company in Melbourne and with resources like this, they are well placed to bring quite professional productions to the scene,