Am I crazy for not liking Casey Bennetto's Keating!? Because I don't.
If you're frequently in the Melbourne CBD I'm sure you've seen some of the ads for the DVD release of Keating!, a live-filmed version of the political musical that was directed by Neil Armfield with music and lyrics by Bennetto. Not knowing anything about the production, I found it to be very bizarre and off-putting. Not so much a standard musical in any form, but more a concert where the lead singers are performing as other people. There's even an encore! It opens with an overture featuring a band - who also act as back-up singers and occasional chorus - in front of a red curtain. Not a good sign. They play a boring piece of music that sounds like the sort of stuff you'd hear at the pub down the road where on one night a week instead of pub rock they feature pub jazz. Ew.
After far too long we finally get into the show, which features no spoken dialogue, threadbare set design and all. Keating! is more Off Broadway than Broadway, I know that, but could it have hurt them to do SOMETHING with the stage. A curtain, some flashing lights that speak K-E-A-T-I-N-G (for no apparently reason, I must add) and a rotating on-stage catwalk just don't cut it. Throughout the show, instead of the usually rousing big songs you expect from a musical we get to trudge through a selection of hipster music cues from the band. Bossa nova, swing and nu-soul are just some of the dire genres the show serves up. Yikes.
However, the worst thing of all was the star of the show. Maybe Mike McLeish's performance worked for audiences sitting watch the show, but on DVD it came across as repellent. Overflowing with big bloated gestures, overly exaggerated movements and filled with a desperate desire to make the show interesting in any way shape or form results in McLeish flailing about the stage, jumping, leaping, sliding and running about while pulling faces trying to act like a man-child living out his lifelong dream of being a rockstar in his living room. Perhaps he is to be commended for doing anything and everything to make the music - generally the best songs are left to the supporting cast, but "Arse End of the World" is great - seem fit for a production of this kind, but it came off as awkward and infuriating. The less said about his ridiculous dancing (if you can call it that) the better.
The show is bizarrely an all-man affair. The end especially has a vibe of guys hanging out having jam session, which is not what I would expect from a production if I was paying upwards of $60. But, then again, Australian politics isn't exactly fair to the "fairer sex" so maybe that's why. Even a female character (Cheryl Kernot) is played by Mick Stuart in drag and, unlike the other actors, a drag job that looks absolutely nothing like Kernot does or did at the time the show is set. It's a shame too, because "her" scene - duet with Enio Pozzebon's Gareth Evans, "Heavens, Mr Evans" - is one of the finer pieces. There is a funny joke involving Keating's invisible wife though.
There are positives though. The performances of Pozzebon and Terry Serio as John Howard (and Bob Hawke, briefly) are quite fine with Pozzebon especially working a great middle-ground and Serio gets quite a few laughs as Howard, most notably during "The Mateship", which is also the show's best song and best musical set piece. "The Arse End of the Earth" is equally amusing and well-performed - McLeish's finest moment - and "Freaky" as performed by Brendan Coustley as a fishnet-wearing Alexander Downer (another big laugh-getter).
Even the best songs, however, can't get away with shoddy production. "The Mateship" gets big laughs for it's costume changes and yet... well, you really have to see it to believe it. Could they not even afford a screen? All of this made me wonder what it would have been like if Keating! had been turned into a big screen musical. Fine tune some of the music, turn down McLeish's very T-H-E-A-T-R-I-C-A-L performance (I'm not disputing that it may have worked live, but this being my only experience with it I was turned off in a big way), add some dialogue breaks and broaden the horizons of the setpieces.
I'd love to see a musical number down the corridors of Parliament House, "Freaky" turned into a "Hey Big Spender"-styled romp and "Choose Me" become a podium-set number reminiscent of "We Both Reached For the Gun" from Chicago. Throw in a "Recession!" number and they'd be set. Best of all I think "The Mateship" would have worked wonders with Serio's John Howard singing while power-walking around Canberra followed by a gaggle of extensively choreographed Young Liberals all culminating in a Funny Girl climax featuring Howard bursting out in song whilst on a boat (named The Mateship, obviously) in the middle of Sydney Harbour.
Alas, there's no point wishing about what they had done, but grade what we have been given and, one must imagine, DVD is not the forum to experience Keating! in, but I was a helluva lot less disappointed by watching it on DVD than I would have been if I had paid the fee to see it live as there are flaws here that shine brighter than the Broadway-lite sign in the production's backdrop. Maybe it was a "you had to be there" situation, but I wasn't there and I was watching the DVD. D+