BWW Review: IN THE DOME ROOM AT TWO O'CLOCK at The Madrigal Room At The Opera Studio
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 1st July 2017.
In the Dome Room At Two O'Clock is a new work in three acts, with a libretto and lyrics by Adelaide duo, playwright, Rob George, and composer, Dale Ringland, based on the people involved in creating the musical, Chu Chin Chow, which had its premiere at His Majesty's Theatre in London in 1916. The dome room was above the theatre and the first of the three acts has Australian entrepreneur, Oscar Asche, staging a reading of the musical, written with the help of composer, Frederick Norton, pitching the production to the theatre manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
Chu Chin Chow is based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and has Abu Hasan, the leader of the thieves, disguised as a Chinese merchant whom they have killed. It was the first major box office hit musical, and gave Australian bass-baritone, Peter Dawson, another important addition to his repertoire with The Cobbler's Song. Chu Chin Chow ran for five years and it was to be four decades before that record was broken. It became referred to as "the musical that won World War One". Asche directed the production, and also played Abu Hasan, while his wife, Lily Brayton, played the slave girl, Zahrat al-Kulub.
This production was directed by Greg Elliott, choreographed by Kerry Elliott, had lighting designed by Marie Docking, musical director Dale Ringland on piano and keyboard, and Andrew Georg on a second piano. The keyboard was connected to a speaker behind the onstage piano so that it appeared as though Mark Oates, in the role of Freddy Norton, was playing it, being a far more effective way of doing this than simply playing another piano from the side of the stage. Ringland's score is a combination of some snippets from Chu Chin Chow and original music for this production, in which he captures the style of the era perfectly.
The central role of John Stange(r) Heiss Oscar Asche (26 January 1871 to 23 March 1936) is sung by Joshua Rowe. He commands the stage in the role, portraying the larger than life character who was self-centred, inconsiderate, arrogant, bombastic, and a tyrant, running roughshod over others, particularly his wife, and insisting on always having his own way. Rowe creates a powerful performance, ensuring that everything revolves around Asche, bending everybody to his will and storming ahead, only to lose everything, with a poignant finish, Rowe showing him distraught as his wife and those around him desert Oscar. Times changed, Asche didn't, and the American musicals, the script mentions the Gershwins and the Astaires, left him behind. His extravagant lifestyle, and his gambling on the greyhounds, left him penniless.
Joanna McWaters plays his unfortunate wife, Lily Brayton. Before Chu Chin Chow Brayton and Asche had both been very busy appearing in the many works of Shakespeare and she was eager to be rid of the musical and get back to that work, but he browbeat her into continuing, then whittled her part down, even giving one of her songs to Queenie, a young and impressionable member of the cast who appears to worship him, and there is a suggestion of more between them.
McWaters gives a superb, emotionally varied performance, as Lily is buffeted by the twists of fate at the hands, and whims of Oscar, drawing on her inner strength to keep going, finally walking out on him. This is the sort of complex characterisation that we have come to expect from her.
Although the core of the work is the relationship between Oscar and Lily there is a cast of twelve, allowing for some fine ensemble work, some of the characters being unnamed and referred to only by their titles, with Gerry Masi as the Stage Manager, and Rachel McCall and Catherine Campbell as the Wardrobe Mistresses. Others, such as Tree, sung by Andrew Turner, and Hargreaves, played by Rodney Kirk, make appearances at times during the production. The cast of Chu Chin Chow are there most of the time. This allows for plenty of variation in the vocal ensemble work, and just about everybody gets a solo at some point.
As the ingénue, Queenie, Naomi Hede is delightful in her wide-eyed portrayal, exhibiting an air of wonder at everything that happens. Andrew Turner is marvellously flamboyant as Beerbohm Tree, sweeping his way around the stage, champagne in hand. Rodney Kirk has two appearances as Hargreaves, first as the returned army officer, representing the Lord Chancellor, effectively acting as a censor, and later returning as a theatre manager, having retired from the army, and going into a song and dance routine that drew huge applause.
Mark Oates, Norbert Hohl, Kristen Hardy, and Daniel Goodburn play Freddy Norton, Joey, Mog, and Godfrey, the other members of Oscar's company, all of whom contribute to the colour and variety of the production, ensuring plenty of movement and background action. There is never a dull moment.
There were only two performances of this charming new musical so, hopefully, it will have another season soon. In the meantime, it is ideally suited to touring so, perhaps, State Opera might just take it on the road to some of our regional towns. If you hear of a repeat season, book early.
Photography: Bernard Hull