Part of the brilliance of Casey Bennetto’s Keating! “The Musical We Had To Have” is that it isn’t really a musical, either structurally or musically. In fact, the original run’s slightly different tagline “The Country Soul Rock Opera We Had To Have” may have been a little unwieldy, but it was a more apt description. Indeed, it is unlike most more traditional Musicals in that it has no dialogue whatsoever, and the entire drama is conveyed through the songs. There is very sparse set, no traditional chorus performers and only three key cast members.
More significant though, is the fact that the music isn’t in the mould of your usual Rodgers & Hammerstein book-musical songs. Instead, each of the nineteen songs is composed and performed in the style of a different genre of popular music, from the swing of “Do it in Style” to the reggae of “Ruler of the Land” or the freestyle rap of “On the Floor”. Each number does more than just ape or parody its respective musical form, in pretty much every case they are actually excellent original compositions in their respective styles.
This works on a number of levels. For those not conversant in or well disposed towards traditional Broadway Musicals, this use of familiar mainstream music genres makes the show far more accessible. It also allows the show to have a greater variety of musical and dramatic styles than most standard Musicals would employ, leading to a night of richly varied musical performances. This also does a handy job of showing off Bennetto’s versatility as both composer and lyricist.
Speaking of lyrics, one must reserve some of the greatest praise for this aspect of Bennetto’s opus. Many of the songs are inspired by real sayings of Paul Keating like the Barry White-esque “I Wanna Do You Slowly”, “the sweetest victory of all” (“Sweet”), and “The Arse End of the Earth”, or are otherwise peppered with memorable real quotes such as “It’s like being flogged with warm lettuce”. Replete with in-jokes wrapped in such wonderful turns of phrase as “I hate the treasury jiggery-pokery/I keep my money in a piggery locally” and audacious rhymes like “I grew up on Bankstown bitumen/Mum and Dad were down in the ditch and then…” Bennetto’s lyrics contain by far some of the wittiest new Australian writing to grace our stages in some time.
That said however, I wonder how well this plays to those in the audience who were either too young or too disengaged to remember much of the details of Paul Keating’s time in office. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people under the age of 30 wouldn’t remember who John Hewson was, for example. Nevertheless, although a Labor-friendly, politically aware 40+ demographic is probably the show’s target audience (what staunch Liberal voters might make of it all would be interesting), anyone with even a passable understanding of the political scene of the early ‘90s should still get an enormous kick out of Keating! Similarly, you don’t need to have actually liked the real Paul Keating or his policies to enjoy this show, despite the fact that it is a blatant (if gently parodic) love letter to the former PM.
The sad thing, however, is that for all its enormously successful national touring, this show is probably totally unexportable. Despite being an absolutely shining example of original Australian theatre, Keating! is heavily reliant on the recognition of jokes and references to politicians and issues which surely would be completely incomprehensible overseas. By the same token, I fear that this enormously memorable piece of work may not have much currency too far down the track either, as mainstream memory of Keating’s times will inevitably fade.
Although the material is unquestionably brilliant, much credit must also go to its terrific performers. Terry Serio is just ideal in his bookend roles as Bob Hawke and John Howard, and despite the long history of both men being lampooned, one can hardly imagine anyone else doing better. His Hawke is deliciously exaggerated, and his devastating impression of Howard is an inspired caricature that is both ridiculous and unexpectedly chilling. Although willfully distorting the real John Howard’s biography in the process, the song “Power” presents a compelling portrait of the fictionalised Howard as a slighted pipsqueak-turned-megalomaniac who craves authority in reaction to schoolyard bullying. Probably the closest to a traditional Musical song in the whole piece, this dread march summons a totally fascinating vision of the satirical Howard character as a self-rationalising villain on par with a Javert or Richard III. The receptive audience (many wearing “Kevin 07” shirts) in attendance lapped this up with glee as one of the high points of the whole show.
In the dual roles of John Hewson and Alexander Downer Eddie Perfect is a memorable performer, although somewhat disappointing compared to Bennetto himself performing in earlier iterations of the production. The main problem is that his enunciation is simply not up to par, which is a considerable disservice to the marvellous lyrics. Furthermore, Perfect lacks Bennetto’s (unfortunately!) greater resemblance to Downer when in full costume. However, Perfect significantly makes up for these shortcomings with considerably greater physical energy. His outrageous Downer-in-drag number “Freaky” is a showstopper, considerably augmented by his hilarious physicality.
The band is terrific, and do double duty as incidental performers, especially keyboardist Enio Pozzebon as Gareth Evans and axeman/saxophonist Mick Stuart (also in drag) as Cheryl Kernot. Their inclusion highlights the fact that Keating! isn’t a biography of Paul Keating, or even really a strictly narrative account of his term in power. Rather, it is a series of vignettes of the major issues, events and especially the political personalities involved in the Keating era.
Much as this is most definitely an ensemble show, one can’t pretend that it does not have a star. And that star is Mike McLeish as the titular ‘hero’. With his adequate resemblance to the real man enhanced by the requisite Zegna suit, McLeish takes the fictionalised persona of Paul and gives us something really quite amazing. I’ll leave it others to decide how accurate, satirical, lyonising or outright romanticised a representation it is of the actual politician; McLeish creates a character who is utterly magnetic. A superbly energetic, versatile and powerful singer, McLeish’s Keating is pure charisma, dominating the attention of every eye in the house as he trots, slides, shimmies and bounds across the stage in his impeccable black suit.
When he begins really belting out some of his heavier songs like the rock power ballad “I Remember Kirribilli” and starts leaping off the rostrum and driving his fist into the stage, you would be quite forgiven for thinking that this man/character is, to put not too fine a point on it, a goddamn rockstar. Is he over the top? Sure. Is he exactly what the material demands? Absolutely! I pity understudy Robert Bertram or any other potential successor – McLeish is wearing some very big, shiny shoes indeed.
Although deceptively simple, Neil Armfield’s flawless stagecraft keeps the show flowing beautifully across Brian Thomson’s set and Damien Cooper’s exceptionally dynamic lighting. It is hard to imagine how this show could have been more perfectly presented.
To paraphrase Hawke, anyone who doesn’t rush out to see this show “is a bum”.
Company B presents
Venue: York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Cnr City Road and Cleveland St, Chippendale
Dates: 7 November – 13 December 2007
Preview: Wednesday 7 November at 8pm. All preview tickets $39.
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Adult $55 (excl. Saturday evenings*), Seniors/Groups/Industry $48, Concession $39.
*Saturday evening performances: all tickets $60
Bookings: Company B Box Office (02) 9699 3444 or Seymour Centre Box Office (02) 9351 7940