When Alexander Berlage directed Cry-Baby at the Hayes Theatre last year he worked wonders. The 1950s rockabilly musical, based on John Waters’ film, had received decidedly mixed reviews in the US, but Berlage’s kooky production knocked audiences for six. It was so perfectly pitched and so deliciously funny that it won the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Production of a Musical (up against shows including The Book of Mormon) as well as three other awards including Best Direction of a Musical.
Ben Gerrard as Patrick Bateman. Photograph © Clare Hawley
Berlage has done it again with his brilliantly staged production of American Psycho The Musical, finding just the right vein of slick, dark, heightened satire to make the show click for today’s audiences. Written by Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (book), the musical is based on Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel about Patrick Bateman, a handsome, young, successful Wall Street investment banker who does financial deals by day and murders people, mostly women, by night.
Set in the “Greed is Good” era, Bateman – who is obsessed with Donald Trump – swans his way through a world of high-end fashion, parties and drugs, where rampant consumerism, greed, misogyny and narcissism hold sway; a world so shallow and hollow that he feels nothing and gets his kicks as an increasingly sadistic serial killer.
Around the time of the novel’s publication I remember reading an extract in Vanity Fair in which Bateman murders a tramp. The scene was so graphically described, so depraved, that as someone who is hopelessly squeamish when it comes to violence or horror of any kind, I knew I couldn’t read the book. I avoided Mary Harron’s well-received 2000 film starring Christian Bale too. So, I admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the musical (which was savaged on Broadway). Who would have thought that Berlage’s production would be so assured, so funny, so thrillingly entertaining yet disturbing at the same time?
Blake Appelqvist as Paul Owen (with business card) and other cast members. Photograph © Clare Hawley
In part, it’s the extraordinary ingenuity that creative teams so often bring to staging musicals in the tiny Hayes Theatre. On top of that, the intimacy of the space makes the audience feel they are virtually part of the show – in this case you feel immersed in Berlage’s slick, visceral, production.
The musical of American Psycho premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2013 and received very positive reviews, but the 2016 Broadway production flopped, with The New York Times describing the “long and decoratively gory” production as “a mess” because of “its terminally undecided tone”.
While the Broadway production was “spattered with stage blood from beginning to end” and featured “the sort of carnage associated with Eli Roth movies”, as Ben Brantley put it, Berlage has used restraint in the amount of violence he actually shows. The ending of Act One still delivers a horrible, queasy-making punch, but by avoiding too much physical blood and gore – the staging of which is invariably distracting – Berlage zones right in on the satire. The production is hilariously funny at times, but it still keeps you on edge. One minute you are roaring with laughter at the way it targets the superficiality of the characters, the next your heart is in your mouth as Bateman’s loyal secretary Jean goes to his flat, where who knows what will befall her.
Berlage has reunited with his Cry-Baby design team, Isabel Hudson (set) and Mason Browne (costumes). He himself has designed the flashy lighting. The production looks incredible. Hudson and Berlage have created a mirrored set, the edges of which are framed by a strip of lighting which changes colour. Sitting on a revolve, and divided into three sections, with doors between them, the mobile set makes for wonderfully swift scene changes.
Ben Gerrard. Photograph © Clare Hawley
The use of mirrors is inspired. Not only does it encapsulate the themes of narcissism and superficiality, but the reflections – which capture the audience as well as the actors – help create the strange, drug-filled world that Bateman inhabits, and plays well in the later scenes where the narrative warps and his sanity slides. Browne’s fabulous costuming reeks of the era, evoking a world where the clothes are all about status, sexiness and style. He also captures the outré splash of queer nightclub The Tunnel, and adds the disquieting touch of the cast in flesh-coloured underwear under blood-splattered plastic as Bateman’s murderous campaign escalates.
Sheik’s original electro-pop songs, arranged here by Musical Director Andrew Worboys, sit alongside a handful of cover tunes from the 1980s, among them In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins and Hip to Be Square by Huey Lewis and the News. The score is pumped out at decibel levels of a nightclub or dance party, which suits the story but makes the lyrics hard to hear at times. Meanwhile, Yvette Lee’s razor-sharp choreography is sensational, and superbly danced by the excellent cast.
As the psychopathic Bateman, Ben Gerrard is dazzling. Not only does he have exactly the right buffed physique and stylish sheen, but his piercing blue eyes seem chillingly devoid of emotion. On stage virtually non-stop, he is mesmerisingly charismatic: a frightening mix of zero empathy and gnawing insecurity, which he captures to perfection.
Ben Gerrard. Photograph © Clare Hawley
Blake Appelqvist is also outstanding, exuding a nonchalant ease as Bateman’s arch-rival Paul Owen, a work colleague who is even more successful than Bateman, and super confident and effortlessly relaxed with it. The scene in which Owen dismisses Bateman’s new business card, sporting his own superior version, is one of the production’s many highlights.
There are also gloriously funny performances from Shannon Dooley as Bateman’s facile, yuppie girlfriend Evelyn Williams and Erin Clare as his casual lover Courtney, while Loren Hunter, who has to play it straight amid all the excess, does a terrific job in finding the truth in Jean, Bateman’s adoring secretary. Eric James Gravolin, Amy Hack, Julian Kuo, Kristina McNamara, Liam Nunan and Daniel Raso who complete the cast, are all on song and together make a taut, tight ensemble.
It’s a horribly dark subject for a musical, not unlike Sweeney Todd (though Sondheim brings psychological depth to the characters, with revenge the motivating force). But both musicals suggest that it is society that turns men into murderous machines, with Bateman’s killing spree a reaction to an empty, vacuous world driven by consumerism.
The ending of the musical sits slightly oddly, as the ambiguity of Bateman’s narration suddenly kicks in, but overall this is a stunning production that thrills and chills.
American Psycho the Musical plays at the Hayes Theatre, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney until June 9