It may have a generic-sounding title, but Songs for the Fallen cruises far from the middle of any road. This brash, funny, campy and high-octane cabaret-style musical from Australia revisits and rejuvenates the oft-told story of Marie Duplessis/The Lady of the Camellias with a big bang.
That 1848 fact-based novella by Alexandre Dumas fils has given us, to name just a few, a theatrical vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt; Garbo in Camille; Verdi’s La Traviata; and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Dumas’s Marguerite, based on the real-life Marie, is the consumptive courtesan who keeps on giving, and like a statue of polished brass, Songs for the Fallen takes its place in the pantheon. Kudos to the New York Musical Theatre Festival for bringing it to NYC, even if for (sadly) only a handful of performances.
As the audience enters, Basil Hogios, co-writer of the music and lyrics, is robotically playing pop hits by the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Blondie with a dinky Casio-ish keyboard sound. Don’t be fooled: the cheesiness is for effect. Hogios plays the whole score himself with a full battery of electronic and acoustic sounds.
The cast’s instruments are even more impressive, especially Sheridan Harbridge’s fluent, versatile, powerfully expressive voice. Her no-nonsense, in-your-face Marie is more Alan Cumming-as-the-Emcee than Nicole Kidman, commanding the stage, glistening with slinky, steely charisma. Harbridge wrote the book, co-write the music and lyrics, and like Hedwig a few blocks away demonstrates with panache that going over the top can be as sure a route to emotional authenticity as any.
Revolving around her are numerous characters all played to the hilt by two energetic actors with talent and skills to match Sheridan’s. Garth Holcombe is a quack doctor and a snippy Dumas-narrator who flowers into Marie’s devoted chronicler-lover; Simon Corfield is Marie’s faithful maid Clothilde, and an assortment of the courtesan’s rich clients and suitors, from the young and foppish to the old and infirm and even the composer Franz Liszt.
It’s a big, brawny, dense and polished little show that mines comedy from classic veins – sex, class, language, caricature, pretension, spectacle. A series of smart songs like “Girls Like Us” and the Kurt Weill-esque “Songs for the Fallen” and sharp fly-girl choreography by Harbridge and director Shane Anthony add dimensionality to the story – and to the compressed but cleverly designed set by Michael Hankin. It’s impressive to see such a fully realized production amid NYMF’s whirlwind of shows and concerts.
The fizzy direction, the brutally comic onstage energy, the crafty songs and costumes, and the overall technical sheen bring to pulse-pounding life this immersive, sly, self-referential version of a never-tired story. While the events took place over 150 years ago, the staging could just as well be like Apollinaire’s Paris or even Weimar Berlin, which is just fine for an adaptation of a novelization of true events that were also a self-indulgent delayed-adolescent fantasy. Songs for the Fallen has a few more performances through July 27. See the NYMF website for schedule and tickets.