What a vile piece of art is Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. What a toxically sexist, nefariously homophobic, grossly classist, shameless celebration of undue privilege and abject narcissism.
So why is this musical treatment of his novel, making its Australian debut at the Hayes Theatre, so much fun?
Oh, it’s transgressive, we’re told, a satire of peak/late ‘80s capitalism. Perhaps. Though the text serves up little consequence for Patrick Bateman and even demands sympathy for his alienation and murderous ennui. It’s relevant now, this production posits, because Bateman worships a New York property mogul by the name of Donald Trump, who has acquired a fair bit of power since an apparently divining Ellis published his novel in 1991. Though the world will seem completely unfamiliar to all but ageing Wall Street warriors.
And the musical itself, an off-West End moderate hit in London turned Broadway bomb in New York, has a host of weaknesses. Composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) provides a pulsating though largely unmemorable score, injected with an ‘80s radio mix (In The Air Tonight, Hip To Be Square, Don’t You Want Me) that gets toes tapping but leaves no headspace for further earworms. The book adaptation by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a smart TV writer (Glee, Big Love, Riverdale), propels at breakneck pace, running over some of the wit in Sheik’s lyrics while failing to properly inflate the female characters.
Director Alexander Berlage dials up the subversiveness to give us an irresistible cartoon comedy as scintillatingly silly as it is smart.
The Hayes production doesn’t help, with a deafening (recorded) soundtrack and muddy sound mix on opening night. Too much got lost. And as good as Ben Gerrard is as Patrick — as oleaginous as Deepwater Horizon — he incomprehensibly Rex Harrisons the songs to suit his barely there voice.
But he is wickedly good, in almost every other way. As is the rest of a fine cast, including Blake Appelqvist in the dual roles as Bateman’s life goal work rival and, later, outsmarting police pursuer. Particular credit to the women of the cast — Erin Clare, Shannon Dooley, Amy Hack, Loren Hunter, Kristina McNamara — who take cardboard caricatures and make them funny, fierce and entirely individual.
That, largely, is why this is as much fun as it is. Along with some of the best design work seen at Sydney’s little musical hall that could, set on a mirrored and dizzying (if noisy) revolve. It’s a terrific concept by set designer Isabel Hudson, splashed with garish frocks and double-breasted, pinstriped neutrals (Mason Browne’s costumes) to wonderfully evoke the era. Yvette Lee’s jangly choreography, too, adds so much to the aesthetic.
It’s the same team behind another Hayes hit Cry-Baby, led by a director with a keen eye for detail in Alexander Berlage. As there, Berlage dials up the subversiveness to give us an irresistible cartoon comedy as scintillatingly silly as it is smart. It’s more generous to Ellis’ book than perhaps it deserves.
American Psycho plays the Hayes Theatre until June 9