Written by Aussie brothers Paul and Michael Hodge, Clinton – The Musical has enjoyed success on the fringe scene. Nominated for Best New Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012, as well as both off Broadway and West End stagings, this work has many good qualities. As the title says this is the story of the rise and near fall of one of America’s favourite Presidents – William J Clinton and offers all the political intrigue one could ask for in a comical often silly way.
Entering the auditorium you are greeted by a massive Red, white and blue curtain, quite garish, but fitting for the showy production we are about to see. Once drawn, the set is a design feat. Centre stage stands a beautifully crafted revolving domed rotunda and it is a beautiful piece of design. Used to house the band in the dome, I have a few reservations on its ease of use for the hard working performers. Poor Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to draw the short straw often squeezing her way past the band mid quick change and the many entries and exits into the body of the rotunda are hindered by the cumbersome blackout curtaining. But those few small details aside there is no denying it is an impressive piece, beautifully designed and crafted by Bruce McKinven.
From Hilary Clinton’s array of block coloured pantsuits to the styling of the numerous supporting characters like Eleanor Roosevelt, Linda Tripp and the array of TV reporters, McKinven’s overall look of the costuming captures the era perfectly. It would have been very easy in a showy production such as this to go that bit too far and I appreciate the reservation shown here. A gripe though is with the band. Having a beautifully styled set (but what is with that desk? That is not Presidential worthy) and era appropriate costuming, why are the band in modern day jeans and t-shirts that are obviously not of the era? A strange choice in what is otherwise a wonderfully styled and designed show.
Music direction by David Young provides a very tight sound. It is punchy and never lags a beat. Unfortunately, the night I was there the sound balance was not quite right meaning the loss of the occasional vocal line and a few ill-timed mic entries. For a fast paced show like this, the sound needs to be spot on.
The songs themselves on the whole are witty and mostly clever, but unfortunately not that memorable. I wouldn’t be the first to say that the only number that stays in your head is Monica’s Song (whose title I cannot print). No doubt there is a whole lot of ground to cover in these songs and they are entertaining, but they don’t really stick.
Director Adam Mitchell has done a good job with this book. But Clinton will not blow your socks off with its political savviness. Sure there are some witty and clever parts, and some hilarious moments, but it lacks sophistication. And this is down to the work itself and not the talents of Mitchell’s direction.
Having said this though, the cast work hard; very, very hard to bring us this new work. All seven deliver great performances.
Simon Burke and Matt Dyktynski give us the two sides of Clinton. Burke, the accomplished statesman and Dyktynski, the alter ego; the bad boy Clinton. Both characterisations are well defined, polished and compliment the other. Their fine voices work very well together and their accomplished acting talents bring lovely complexities to their characters. They both are fabulous to watch.
Luke Hewitt once again delivers a skilful performance as the Republican speaker Newt Gingrich. I am never left underwhelmed by Hewitt’s ability to transform and produce characters that are defined, solid and controlled. Gingrich is portrayed as a food obsessed bumbling fool. But for me, it worked. It served to highlight the often ridiculousness of politics, the characters, the hypocrisy and the wheeling and dealing.
But one character that did leave me baffled is that of Kenneth Starr, the lawyer who fought to bring down the Clinton administration following the Lewinsky scandal. Maybe I’ve missed something here but I just cannot understand the overt sexualisation of this character? Why was he portrayed as a camp leather clad villain? (Yes, think harness and chaps people.) Is it written this way or a directional choice? Either way, I’m at odds with it. But, Brendon Hanson gives his all in this role. When on stage he is there in every moment, solid, he has the audience in his grasp and my goodness can this man sing! Hanson’s delivery of Starr is Born is a knock out!
Clare Moore in her Black Swan debut is a delight in her numerous character roles, most memorable as Civil Servant Linda Tripp who befriends Lewinsky only to secretly record her phone conversations. I have not seen Moore on stage for many years and it is wonderful to again see her perform and listen to that magnificent voice.
One may be mistaken to think that this piece is all about Hilary, given the stage time and being the best written of the characters. Lisa Adam shines in this role. Adam is truly magnificent; a powerhouse of an actor who goes for her shots and succeeds on every occasion. We are presented with a gutsy, intelligent, confident performance…with a bit of geek thrown in for good measure. A true highlight of the evening.
Rounding out the cast, and also in her Black Swan debut is Megan Kozak (Monica Lewinsky). I loved this performance and not only because Kozak is fortunate to have the one song most audience members will long remember, but because she brings to the stage another dynamo performance. Her voice is spectacular and creates a very believable Lewinsky packed full of naivety, charm and sass.
My biggest reservation of this production is the choice to stage it in the main theatre. This musical for me still reflects fringe and I am not entirely convinced it is suited as a large scale production in a large scale theatre. Some subtleties were missing for me due to the sheer size of this production.
But, did I have a ball watching this show – you bet ya! It is wonderful to just sit back and go with whatever this talented team throw at you. It is entertaining, refreshing and a little off beat. Something I like very much.
Clinton the Musical
Book by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge. Music and Lyrics by Paul Hodge.
Black Swan State Theatre Company in association with the Perth Theatre Trust.
Directed by Adam Mitchell.
Cast: Lisa Adam, Simon Burke, Matt Dyktynski, Brendan Hanson, Luke Hewitt, Megan Kozak and Clare Moore.
Musical Director: David Young, Set & Costume Designer: Bruce McKinven, Lighting Designer: Mark Howett, Sound Designer: Ben Collins, Choreographer: Claudia Alessi
Image credit Daniel James Grant
Presented as part of the Winter Arts Festival 2016