Left – Lisa Adam and Simon Burke. Cover – Lisa Adam, Simon Burke and Matt Dyktynski. Photos – Daniel James Grant
Black Swan State Theatre has enjoyed a run of successes in recent times. Whether unleashing exciting and challenging new works in the Studio Underground (Loaded: A Double Bill of New Plays, A Perfect Specimen), or filling the main house of the Heath Ledger Theatre (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Angels In America, Part One: The Millenium Approaches, The Caucasian Chalk Circle), Black Swan’s 2016 season has been consistently on song. Their latest offering is the Australian premiere of Clinton The Musical, written by Melbourne-based brothers Michael and Paul Hodge, which has traversed the stages of New York, London and Edinburgh before making its way to Perth. Given the quality of its work this year, would this sleepy hit live up to Black Swan’s sky-high benchmark?
Clinton The Musical tells a story we all know too well. A charming president, an ambitious first lady, political adversaries, a media throng, a buxom brunette and a box of Cubans all make an appearance in the musical retelling of President Bill Clinton’s election and controversial terms in the Oval Office. Interestingly, the writers made the brilliant choice to separate the charismatic leader into his two component personalities. WJ Clinton (Simon Burke) is the caring and responsible leader carrying the hopes of a nation, who wants to leave a legacy that lasts well beyond his time in office. Billy (Matt Dyktynski) wouldn’t mind a legacy, but would sure like to have fun leaving one. Hillary (Lisa Adam) just wants them all to get along, and when that blue dress threatens to undo the hopes of all three, they must unite to overcome their challenges.
Because we already know how the story unfolds, we are essentially paying to see a story told well. Drawing inspiration from Australian hit Keating: The Musical, the brothers Hodge have honed a sharp, witty piece with a laugh rate that exceeds expectations. The musical numbers, written by Paul Hodge and performed tightly under David Young’s musical direction, combine clever political references with clever aural references (most notably Clinton’s campaign theme, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”) to spectacular effect.
The direction, as we’ve come to expect from Adam Mitchell, was superb. Working with Bruce McKinven’s spectacular revolving set design, Mitchell’s slick blocking and attention to detail made every scene sparkle, with each act cracking along at a lively pace. However, Mitchell’s real strength is in how he develops his actors. In Clinton The Musical, his theatrical leadership drew noteworthy performances from every cast member.
The cast were, in a word, exceptional. Each actor was fully committed to their characters, and the resulting vocal and theatrical performances drew laughs, moments of genuine empathy, and a standing ovation. Luke Hewitt brought childlike naïvety and slapstick to his role as Republican Newt Gingrich. Megan Kozak (Monica Lewinsky) and Clare Moore (Eleanor Roosevelt) found range in their portrayal of multiple characters, and their energy in chorus scenes kept the play buzzing. Brendan Hanson, freed from the shackles of weightier roles, reveled in the camp portrayal of Kenneth Starr. Part political meddler, part Disney villain, and completely risqué, Hanson brought a flair and fearlessness to the role that had the audience almost rolling in the aisles.
Simon Burke had clearly done his homework as the statesman, WJ Clinton. His posture, mannerisms and Southern drawl at times could easily have been mistaken for the former President himself (if the President also had a spectacular set of pipes). In contrast, Matt Dyktynski’s applaudable depiction of the suave and brash Billy provided plenty of laughs, and some genuine insight into the dichotomy of Clinton’s personality.
However, for my money, it was Lisa Adam’s depiction of Hillary Clinton that won the night. In her debut for Black Swan State Theatre Company, Adam delivered an election-winning portrayal of the First Lady in all her pants-suited glory. Swinging from wild ambition to raw emotion, Adam’s commitment to making the most of every moment was the highlight of the production, and I certainly hope this is not the last show we see from her on this side of the continent.
All in all, Clinton The Musical was a resounding success. If you’re not a fan of cerebral comedy or sexual references, or you voted for Tony Abbott, this may not be the show for you. However, if you like world-class performances, thoughtful direction, spectacular sets, outstanding musicians, intelligent writing, a cracking good score, and a great night out, then you’d be well advised to vote with your feet and get along to Black Swan’s latest achievement.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
Clinton The Musical
book Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge | music and lyrics Paul Hodge
Directed by Adam Mitchell
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 27 August – 11 September 2016
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au | 1300 795