American Psycho first appeared in musical form in London in 2013, following years of development. In 2016, after further workshopping, the show made its way to Broadway but closed after only 81 performances. Now, up and coming director Alexander Berlage (responsible for last year’s award-winning production of Cry-Baby) is at the helm of the Australian premiere, which has just opened at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co.
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel (banned in Queensland and providing the source material for the 2000 film starring Christian Bale), American Psycho is set in New York City in 1989. Patrick Bateman (Ben Gerrard) is an affluent 26-year-old investment banker working on Wall Street. He’s well bred, immaculately groomed, has unashamedly expensive taste and a furious determination to succeed in a fiercely competitive, breakneck world. Each member of his elite circle of friends (or colleagues) is similarly inclined.
But while Bateman routinely indulges in pleasures concomitant with the high life, he gets his real thrills spending his nights murdering strangers (and, sometimes, his acquaintances). As time progresses, his savage crimes escalate in their depravity. Bateman begins to unravel, but in a hypercapitalist world, what will it take for those around him to suspect his dark pursuits? In this environment, how easy is it for such profoundly disturbing activity to go unchecked? When humanity is unconsciously communally checked at the door, what may be unleashed?
With a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa and music by Duncan Sheik, American Psycho is a blackly humourous derision of the yuppie mentality that calls on us to care about our society. Berlage has taken the material and crafted a high energy, enormously funny and completely engrossing production in which his razor-sharp attention to detail is evident at every turn. He’s amped up the comedy to emphasise the utter absurdity of Bateman and co, and it’s hugely effective. Yvette Lee’s skilful choreography is also crucial here.
The action unfolds on a revolving stage that remains in motion for much of the show, speaking to the frenetic and unrelenting pace of the consumeristic world Bateman inhabits. The luxury apartments, high end restaurants and trendy nightclubs in which events take place are aptly represented by a set of mirrored walls (designed by Isabel Hudson). These mirrors are a nod to the ubiquitousness of the yuppie world and the homogeneity of Bateman’s peers and surroundings. In the show’s final moments, they’re also used to great effect to force self-reflection on our own values and priorities.
Costume designer Mason Browne has all of the elite clothed to a standard of which even they would approve, showing deference to the international designers in vogue at the time, foregrounding flamboyance, and then incorporating high fashion pieces into the musical’s club scenes. During the second Act, Browne’s clever choices play an integral role in visualising the blurring of details in Bateman’s mind, as he psychologically deteriorates and his recall of events becomes increasingly unreliable, and in signposting his perception of people as being no different to disposable goods. And when it comes to lighting, given his extensive professional credits in the arena, it’s unsurprising that Berlage uses lights here to tremendous effect.
Musically, American Psycho includes a mix of 80s synth-pop classics from the likes of Human League and New Order, a Phil Collins ballad and a Huey Lewis and the News favourite. These classics are woven together with original tracks by Sheik that pay homage to the iconic sounds of the era and progress the narrative. Rather than offering us a straight-forward reproduction of the score as heard by London and New York audiences, musical director Andrew Worboys has retained elements of the original arrangements but reconstructed them, and the results are impressive.
This Australian premiere also features a supremely talented cast. Gerrard delivers as the phlegmatic and solipsistic urbane slayer, a man who appears not to be a fully-fledged human being, but instead something of a shell. His Bateman is immediately unsettling and draws us into a warped, hedonistic existence. Gerrard does well in depicting Bateman’s gradual descent.
Shannon Dooley showcases wonderful comedic timing as Bateman’s fiancé, Evelyn, making the most of the character’s stage time. Erin Clare is a standout performer in the role of Courtney, her soaring vocals leaving us with some of opening night’s most memorable musical moments. Loren Hunter is excellent vocally as Jean, Bateman’s secretary (who, bizarrely, is drawn to him based on apparent human qualities). Her character exhibits by far the most humanity of the bunch. Meanwhile, Blake Appelqvist demonstrates his knack for comedy in a strong performance as Paul Owen, Bateman’s business associate. However, every member of the cast of 11 (which also includes Eric James Gravolin, Amy Hack, Julian Kuo, Kristina McNamara, Liam Nunan and Daniel Raso) gives a fully committed performance and contributes to making this a uniformly strong ensemble.
Berlage’s American Psycho allows us to laugh at its narcissistic, superficial and unfeeling characters, but also cautions us not to assume that we’re so far removed from what we’ve witnessed. It reminds us that consistent movement in the right direction – towards a more inclusive and empathetic world – is a conscious, collective effort. It doesn’t hit you over the head with a drawn out, preachy exposition of these ideas, but they are nonetheless clearly conveyed in two-and-a-half hours of highly entertaining theatre.
Since opening, the Hayes has allowed music theatre fans to enjoy productions of classic and rarely performed works from times gone by, but it also affords an exciting opportunity to bring Sydney audiences fresh shows from around the world that won’t find a home in our large commercial houses. American Psycho fits into that category and, under Berlage’s direction, is perhaps one of the best productions to play the Hayes to date . It is intelligent, incisive, imaginative and compelling, and a must-see that affirms how much Berlage has to offer as a music theatre director.
AMERICAN PSYCHO – THE MUSICAL (SEASON DETAILS)
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 9 June 2019
Times: Tues- Fri 7.30pm | Sat 2pm and 7.30pm | Sunday 2pm
Price: $65 Adult, $55 Concession
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337