Electric Dreams review by Nick Pilgrim

***** stars

Artificial intelligence and its impact on daily life is a discussion with far-reaching ethical implications.

Exploited for its intrinsic entertainment value, classic films such as 2001 – A Space OdysseyDark StarSleeperWest WorldAlienTerminator and Her, show us a concerning dark side.  What happens when robots develop minds of their own?

Thirty-five years ago, the idea of placing machines in charge of one’s household affairs seemed like impossible, science fiction fantasy.  In 2019, however, the likes of Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Play are a domestic reality growing in vast numbers as I type.

As a teenager of the eighties, my spare time was spent playing far too many video games. Much to my older brother’s chagrin, I also hogged his prized VHS player as well. Electric Dreams was one of those early rentals we discovered together by fortuitous accident.

Set to capitalise on the first wave of affordable personal computing, the film was a modern twist on Cyrano de Bergerac. (Authored by Edmond Rostand in 1897, his play was a love triangle whose main character feels hobbled by somewhat unconventional looks.  The protagonist employs a proxy to romance the woman of his dreams and in doing so, wins her over by curtain down. In Electric Dreams, Cyrano’s human rival is replaced by a jealous PC named Edgar.)

Unfortunately, a North American Summer release in 1984 coincided with the electronic industry’s global market crash. The film tanked and quickly disappeared from cinema screens.  Later, thanks to the miracle of home video hire, widespread cable access and repeat television screenings, Electric Dreams eventually earned its stripes as a fan favourite.

In recent years, there has been a trend of adapting popular motions pictures to the musical stage. Eighties’ fare that have taken the plunge include 9 to 5, Dirty Dancing, Heathers, The Color Purple, Tootsie, and Xanadu.

With no shortage of cheeky source material, from the garish fashion to the ‘breakthrough’ technology, the retro references in Electric Dreams come thick and fast. The show works on this cult appeal with colourful costumes, bright set design, and twenty-two original numbers and orchestrations by Drew Lane.

(A feature article reported last month by Theatre People’s own Kris Weber, details Lane’s long-standing love with the movie, and the single-minded determination it took to bring this passion project to life.)

His accessible score is also faithful to the time period.  A mixture of new wave and synth pop, Lane’s delightful compositions reference the musical likes of Belinda Carlisle, Bonnie Tyler, Culture Club, Journey, Rick Astley, Robert Palmer, Simple Minds, Soft Cell, The Bangles, The Eurythmics, The Human League and Wham. Just to name a few.

Every song is a singular joy. Not only do they deserve to become free-standing classics, each piece expands on a dramatic plot point to build crucial characterisation. As a collection, they help drive the cohesive narrative from start to finish.

Stand-outs include ‘Beautiful Relationship’, ’Classical Hasselhoff’, ‘You Were There’, ’Play with Me’, ‘That’s Love’, ’There Inside of You’, and ‘Being Human’. (Lane leads a six-piece band on piano whose members include Damien Mizzi (Keys 1), Po Goh (Keys 2), Anth Nekich (Guitar), Matthew Field (Bass), Ryan Evans (Drums), Harry Coulson (Bass – Saturday Shows), and Paul Coles (Drums – Saturday Shows.)

Lane is a man of many talents.  He also wrote the show’s story (adapted with kind permission from the original script by Rusty Lemorande.) In August last year, a successful industry reading at Prahran’s MC Showroom got the ball rolling.

This staged workshop development production at Gasworks Theatre in Albert Park is the latest step in bringing Electric Dreams to fully-realised life. Produced by Music Theatre Melbourne, they are also known for turning Paris – A Rock Odyssey (by the late Jon English) into a spectacular concert tribute at The Melbourne Recital Centre.

Fifteen months down the track from that first reading, the musical has become an expertly-crafted experience on every level. It is constructed with a slick balance between tongue-in-cheek parody, and loving tribute to a more innocent era. No detail has been left to chance. Furthermore, the show’s wide-reaching potential has something for everyone.

Sensitive direction and choreography from Roman Berry, and assistant direction from Sarah Davies, is two-fold. In their care, they allow both the captivating story to grow and flower, while guiding genuine chemistry between the main characters to develop and fully bloom. With a running time of 140 minutes (including a twenty-minute interval), I guarantee that Electric Dreams will fully invest audiences in its immersive journey.

Intelligent set design, construction and transport is a team effort by Lachie McFarlane, Darren O’Shea, Michael Large, Steven Howell, and Mark Raynes. Together, they have created a versatile two-storey structure which shapes and divides scenes. The Gasworks Theatre floor level stage is also used to full advantage.

Outstanding projection and LED design is credited to McFarlane and Howell Without giving anything away, the big surprise is how the show’s computer menace becomes central to the surrounding action. Peter Fitzpatrick is listed as the Creative Director, and McFarlane as its Scenographer, along with Lighting and Projection (Design & Operation).

Costumes are credited to McFarlane, Berry and Janette Raynes. Make-up and Hair are by Emma Webster and Sarah Jeffs. With these elements combined, at times characters look like they have could have stepped out of an MTV video, a John Hughes film, or a cheesy network sitcom. Sharp and vibrant in appearance, the overall look is spot-on.

On opening night, it should be noted that some early sound balance issues between the cast and the band that threatened to bring the show unstuck, were quickly resolved.

Expert stage management duties are shared by Leane Maddren and Caitie Murphy. Together, they keep the show running smoothly at all times.

The attractive cast of ten bounce off one another with high-energy and enthusiastic flair. Experienced performers in their own right, everyone is a strong triple threat.

As our hero, Miles, Tom Green brings shy charm to his character. Blessed with a rich tenor voice, he handles the show’s complex material with ease. You can’t help but love him.

Madeleine Featherby (as Madeline) is his intellectual and romantic match. Having previously seen her in Paris – A Rock Odyssey, Featherby knows her way around a power ballad. She too, has excellent vocal and acting ability.

Together, Featherby and Green traverse this unusual journey with absolute conviction at all times.

Stephen Mahy (as Frank) and Angela Scundi (as Millie) play Miles’ and Madeline’s respective best friends. They too, share a playful bond.  Their Act One duet is a highlight. ‘Play with Me’, reminded this reviewer of the iconic closing number between Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman and Johnny Castle from the movie, Dirty Dancing.

As Bill, Anthony Scundi plays a vain and hilarious rival to Miles. The number, ‘Classic Hasselhoff’ is a show-stopper.

Though off-stage for most of the time, Owen James gives the voice of Edgar depth and humanity. In a brilliant moment of staging quite different from the film, James is allowed to shine centre stage with the song, ‘Being Human’.

Playing a number of supporting roles between them, the ensemble is rounded out by Zak Brown, Sophie Loughran, Aidan Niarros, and Courtney Smyth.

In its present form, Electric Dreams could for all intents and purposes tour right now. Hot on the heels of local success stories like Priscilla – Queen of The DesertStrictly Ballroom, and Muriel’s Wedding, this latest addition to the Australian musical theatre landscape more than deserves a place at the table.

Playing for a strictly-limited season, Electric Dreams runs until Sunday November 24.  Don’t miss out!

Performances / 5 stars

Direction / 5 stars

Musical Direction / 5 Stars

Choreography / 5 Stars

Set Design / 5 Stars

Sound Design / 4 Stars

Lighting Design / 5 Stars

Costumes, Hair & Make-Up / 5 Stars

Stage Management / 5 Stars