KXT, Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney
January 26, 2019
If you needed any kind of confirmation that Jay James-Moody is a consummate, inspired and hugely original musical theatre performer, then grab the remaining tickets to Herringbone, in which the solo performer plays 11 roles.
Jay James-Moody in Herringbone. Photographs © David Hooley
Herringbone marks the impressive return of independent music theatre company Squabbalogic after a hiatus of two years during which James-Moody – its founding Artistic Director – worked as the standby for Elder Cunningham in the original Australian cast of The Book of Mormon.
Subtitled A Vaudevillian Ghost Story, Herringbone premiered in 1982. Written by Canadian-American playwright and librettist Tom Cone with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, it is a weird little show which James-Moody describes as “a bit of a fun-house ride of farce and fear” requiring “a very schizophrenic performance that is also rooted in the old-time vaudeville style”.
You can say that again. After an introductory number by George Herringbone we are whisked back to Demopolis, Alabama in 1929 when George Nookin was an eight-year old child and his parents Arthur and Louise were struggling like many others with the Great Depression. The death of a well-off relative dashes hopes when he leaves them no money, just the advice that “culture in hard times does real well”.
When George wins $25 in an oratory contest and captures the attention of Mr Mosely, a former vaudevillian who used to be part of a double act called The Chicken and the Frog, George’s mother convinces his greedy father not to pocket George’s winnings but use them for their son to take acting lessons from the old vaudevillian, once known as The Chicken.
With his eye on Hollywood success, George’s father buys him a suit and the lessons begin. But before you know it, George is possessed by the spirit of Mr Mosely’s malevolent former partner Lou, the Frog, who is hell-bent on revenge and the chance to enjoy the success denied him by his untimely death.
Running 90 minutes, the show gradually darkens as Lou enforces his hold on poor, gentle George with the two of them fighting to control the body they now share. In one disturbing scene, Lou tries to have his way with a hotel receptionist called Dot, spurring a final showdown.
Presented by Squabbalogic in association with Kings Cross Theatre and Bakehouse Theatre Company, James-Moody not only stars but has co-directed the production with Michael Ralph. Set designer Benjamin Brockman has created a circular stage ringed with lights, reminiscent of a circus or cabaret space, on which there is a writing desk and a stool which James-Moody moves around for different scenes. Brockman’s lighting and Jessica James-Moody’s sound heighten the strangeness of the story.
Backed by a band of three – Natalya Aynsley on keyboard, Amanda Jenkins on double bass, and Tom McCracken on drums – the catchy songs, with nifty lyrics, range from a vaudevillian style to shades of A Chorus Line (musical direction by Benjamin Kiehne).
Wearing white make-up with darkened eyes and red lipstick, and costuming from the era by Pam Schultz (daggy old fawn cotton underwear and a scruffy suit) James-Moody gives an astonishing performance as he moves seamlessly between the 11 characters. Each has their own distinctive voice, stance and body language, and each is instantly recognisable.
James-Moody also sings the 15 musical numbers in various voices, and physicalises much of the action, swimming, leaping and dancing – in manic fashion when Lou is leading the fray (clever choreography by Michael Ralph). It’s an incredible performance. The show itself is a darkly comic, oddball piece with a narrative that doesn’t ultimately make the strongest mark, but you won’t forget James-Moody’s performance. Recommended.
Herringbone plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until February 2