By Stephen Mitchell
In a time when creeping authoritarianism and the (mis)rule of unaccountable elites feels particularly ripe (or is that just always?) On The Rise leaps into all-singin’, all-dancin’ revolutionary fervour with a musical fantasy that manages to interweave the righteous roar of the mob with a smattering of nuanced reflection on human failings. In the relatively small confines of St Kilda’s Theatre Works, the show thinks big, filling the stage with twenty odd performers and nine orchestra members in a fairly cartoony tale of revolution gone wrong. It’s Les Mis meets Rocky Horror, minus the sexual innuendo and French accents but with plenty of gothic eye shadow and more than a few deliberate (I think?) references to Jean Valjean and his fellow miserables.
The story is located in the dystopian city of Kotheric, locked down by the hated King Deakin, where the locals are hungry, desperate, and ready to be whipped into a musical uprising. Enter Frieda – lured back to Kotheric by her rebel firebrand sister Arienne who is convinced life for the populace will be improved with a bit of regicide but is less convinced she has the personal charisma to take the populace with her. Meanwhile former King Aaron (Deakin’s brother) is keen to ride the wave of public discontent and pressures Arienne to form an alliance. They have diametrically opposed governance goals but, what the hell, agree on a plan of ‘overthrow the king and work out the details later’. Frieda finds herself in the midst of revolution, wedged between the bickering leaders, while on the other side, insipid King Deakin turns out to be quite sympathetic to the plight of his people but helplessly dominated by his Royal Council, led by dastardly villain Hermann.
If that sounds like a rich brew and a lot of fun, it is. Show writers Oscar Jenkin and Julian Smith developed their script over two years and have wisely resisted the urge to turn an epic subject into epic length. At slightly over an hour running time, they drop us into the action without much preamble but it doesn’t take long for the stakes and major players to become clear and the show still leaves room for some twists and turns before the climax. With a lot of people on stage at times and the need to accommodate ensemble dance pieces, director Maddison Sullivan understandably opts for a bare performance space with just an ornate gold throne and a couple of perfunctory boxes for set. That’s fine, but it puts the onus on costume and lighting to do a bit of work visually. In an all black theatre space, costuming the performers in mostly black doesn’t do a lot for the spectacle, although flashes of colour are effective in setting characters apart. Josh Gardner’s lighting design lacks some definition too, particularly for dance sequences where the shapes and movement are muddied under a general overhead wash. Nevertheless, some more starkly delineated states and neat transitions do redeem it in the second half.
That rather leaves the performers and the musical score to carry the weight…and they do admirably. While the songs don’t quite present a bona fide showstopper, they are generally excellent, well-crafted to the subject matter and offering more than a few great moments — highlights being the opening overture and trial scene. Under the sure guidance of Julian Smith-Gard, the orchestra rides the dynamics of songs and underscoring deftly and evocatively. If there’s one thing twelve seasons of So You Think You Can Dance has taught me, it’s that dancing in unison en masse is a minefield of potential mishap, but the chorus here carries it off with aplomb. Choreographer Ella Clarke marshalls her troupe cohesively and expressively, keeping it simple and effective, and sprinkling energetic set pieces with humour. The ensemble singing is similarly strong with some real standouts among the leads. Niina Dell in particular as Frieda has a pure voice that is sadly lost in some of the arrangements but absolutely shines in a delicate solo moment towards the end. The choice to mic up the performers is a fraught one. Is it really that hard to hear unamplified voices in a small theatre space? Issues with the mix, occasional drop outs and performers peaking out the levels when they use their natural projection are an unfortunate distraction from some generally fine singing. There is also a directionless quality to electronic audio that works against the intimacy of live local theatre.
In a collection of broadly drawn characters, the Royal Council played by Ruby Stewart, Allegra Penna, JJ Bartsch and Jack Smith is a delight, presenting a gothic legion of super villains with verve and comic dash. Bartsch’s Gigi makes the most of some snarky lines with a commanding presence, and Jack Smith as Hermann combines some adroit physical comedy with finely delivered Machiavellian intensity. Of the revolutionaries, Shannon Yeung carries a lot of the plot with sustained energy both as rebel-rouser and conflicted lover. The rockstar performance though is Tom Liszukiewicz who bursts onto the stage as a swaggering, sexy, conceited former King Aaron. It’s a turn to make Franknfurter jealous, as he fuses some well-modulated baritone with a barrage of heroic poses, cheeky asides, moonwalks and glorious hamming. A rather abrupt about-face in Aaron’s character mid-show presents a perplexing bit of writing, but Liszukiewicz takes it in his stride and deservedly receives the biggest curtain call cheer.
On The Rise does have an earnest heart and rather a downbeat ending, but it matches these with an overall atmosphere that is lively, mischievously referential and funny.