In many ways, the story of legendary songwriter Jim Steinman (the man behind Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell) isn’t an unusual one; a devoted artist with prodigious talent is pushed to the back of the stage while another, more “marketable” and loved artist takes the spotlight. Things quickly turn south for the jilted artist who fades away, often turning to vices. Sometimes there’s a triumphant return, and sometimes they’re lost to the world (though their music lives on etc.)
These stories are always solid fodder for theatre; especially when the artist has a back catalogue like Steinman’s (Bat Out of Hell, It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Holding Out for a Hero, I Would Do Anything For Love). Winner of the 2010 Sydney Cabaret Convention, Toby Francis, has created a dark and ferociously energetic show around Steinman’s music and struggles.
Francis plays Steinman as he attempts to complete and find backers for Neverland, his dystopian rock opera based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Steinman’s musical only had one minor stage outing in 1977, but it formed the basis for one of the best-selling albums of all time; Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.
At the same time, Steinman tells us about his fracturing relationship with Meat Loaf and the jealousy that’s tearing him apart as he misses out on the acclaim, royalties, equal billing, fame and fortune. But it’s all related back to Neverland, as he speaks and plays his way through segments of the show, with stunning projections by Lauren Peters, evoking the dark cityscape that is Steinman’s Neverland.
The script is sharp and solid as it makes its way through various surreal sequences. It has moments where it becomes a little too overtly sentimental, particularly when he starts talking about “fate”. But there’s a poeticism to the language and ideas that matches Steinman’s lyrics.
Francis is backed by musical director Andrew Worboys and singer Noni McCallum, who drifts in with her Bonnie Tyler-inspired look to play the female characters in Neverland. Her performance of Total Eclipse of The Heart rips the song away from cliché and gives it a stillness that sees the melody turn into something quite haunting.
Francis has a true rock tenor; powerful and raw. Even though the relentless belting in Steinman’s compositions started to take their toll on his voice towards the end of the show, he sings with such endearing conviction it’s easy to forgive. He’s also a fine, charismatic actor, capturing the character’s ugly, jealous side expertly.
The sound design in the intimate Hayes Theatre is surprisingly good, but Andrew Worboys’ musical direction fails to capture the full spectrum of Steinman’s beefy, bombastic sound. He draws as much life from the song as possible using his grand piano and Francis’ red Fender Stratocaster, but his pre-recorded, synthesized backing tracks don’t match the caliber of the talent onstage. It turns a little karaoke night-lite in certain moments. It’s a shame, because Francis is truly delivering the vocal goods, but without a rich sound it gets lost.
It’s one of the more left-of-centre pieces in the Hayes Theatre’s inaugural cabaret season – which has managed to embrace a broad spectrum of what cabaret is over its month-long mini festival. It’s brought diverse audiences through its front door with its solid mix of star power and up and coming stars who are willing to push the boundaries a little (and some of them even say “fuck”).
At the final performance of the three-night run, Francis invited his partner (both in life and production company Highway Run) Lauren Peters onstage to “take a bow”. He then proposed on bended knee in front of an ecstatic audience of fans and Sydney cabaret’s finest (including David Campbell, Marika Aubrey, Tom Sharah and Elise McCann). Magic really does happen at the Hayes.