I'll be honest, Canberra's musical theatre is increasingly leaving me a tad cold. Recycling the same dozen shows is starting to bug me. And ... I'm aware that Canberra's musical theatre does not exist solely (or primarily) to entertain me as a target audience. So therefore, time to look a bit further afield.
Squabbalogic is a Sydney-based Independent Music Theatre company, aimed at presenting newer musicals and reinterpretations of the existing music theatre canon. They've been going since 2006, but this year is the first time they've done a full season of shows. "Bloody Bloody" fits right in the middle of a season in three different venues - "Forbidden Broadway" in a cabaret room in Newtown, "Bloody Bloody" at The Factory in Marrickville, normally a music and standup venue, and "Carrie" at the Seymour Centre. Their show selection is nicely eclectic, clever and gives a lot of space for younger performers to show off their talents in a range of different material.
And "Bloody Bloody" is the perfect show to sample. A very irreverent, post-punk look at early 19th century American politics, covering issues as broad as border control, stolen elections and politics through popularity rather than policy, it's not hard at all to see modern day parallels. The approach is very much a young, reasonably educated, person's approach to everything - sample lyrics are "Alexis de Toqueville says/something in French/That None of us can translate" and "Life Sucks/and My life sucks in particular"). It's basically the South Park/Simpsons version of history - and like both, it's both as entertaining as possible and has a strong underlying ethical and intellectual undertone - even as the characters can be both profoundly unethical and anti-intellectual.
It's not necessarily an easy show to get perfect (there's a lot of shifting tones, as the show moves between sarcasm and sincerity often within the space of the same line), but Squabalogic give it a red hot go and are probably about at an equivalent level to anyone in Canberra (and their ticket prices, at $40, are roughly equivalent too).
There are some very strong performances in here. Peter Meredith as Jackson is not quite among them - the role needs a charismatic sociopath ... and Meredith is good looking and looks appropriately sociopathic, but good looking and charismatic aren't the same thing and on that level it does make the ride a little bumpier than maybe it should be (he's also clearly a nutbag almost immediately, rather than letting us get seduced and entertained by him then later realising just how horrendous our hero really is). Louise Kelly as his wife Rachel is both gorgeous and touching during the fairly sincere "The Great Compromise" (with its blistering final lyrics "I give up everything/You give up nothing") - she also wins the unofficial prize for best bio that probably burns your bridges anywhere else (dishing some quite hilarious dirt on other show's she's been in). Jay James-Moody's Martin Van Buren is constantly hilarious whenever he appears - he's pretty much the Smithers to Jackson's Mr Burns, an easily enchanted sycophant. Ex-Canberran Toby Francis has regular solos and acquits himself quite nicely vocally and with a nicely sarky way with dialogue.
I'm not entirely in love with Monique Salle's choreography - there are some moments (the girl singers in "Ten Little Indians" that land strongly, but other things like the little leaps during "Populism Yea Yea" feel unmotivated and more a case of "steps for the sake of steps". It's tightly performend and rehearsed, so this isn't a case of me thinking it's done badly, just a case of "I'd prefer to see something else there".
Like I said, this kind of thing is exactly my cup of tea (or my bottle of burbon). But it isn't necessarily a lot of other people's - even in Sydney, the audience I was in was less than half full (on a Saturday Matinee) and I don't know if that's a sustainable financial model for very long. But I'm glad they exist and I'm glad this show was done anyway.