The Fix began its theatrical life at the Donmar in 1997 and was revived at the Union Theatre in 2012 in a celebrated production directed by Michael Strassen. It is no great surprise, then, that a revival of Strassen’s production has been programmed to commence the working life of the Union Theatre in its new premises, across the road from the old one. This version of The Fix puts a spotlight on the new space and demonstrates the virtues and flaws of both the piece and the venue.
The new Union Theatre is a very different proposition from the old one. It’s a fresh, open and somewhat cavernous space, both inside and outside the auditorium. The welcoming staff operate box office and bar with the geniality and aplomb one was used to in the old theatre, but there is definitely a spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes.
The new environs are pleasant and a bit shiny. There is no sense of rising damp or stuffy airless rooms about the new home, but then those were admirable qualities of the old home. There, the sense that the artists were working with nothing created a playground of possibility.
The new space has very tall ceilings, unadorned brick walls and, inside the auditorium, a large, tall staircase dominates stage right of the playing area and a set of chairs provides comfortable accommodation for the audience. It feels a very different space even if it does share one troubling characteristic with the old space: it gets uncomfortably hot in the auditorium and both performers and audience suffer for art.
One of the best things about the old Union Theatre was that there was hardly ever a bad seat in the house, whatever stage configuration was used. Small rows of seats were raked sufficiently so that action played on the floor could be clearly seen. Alas, for The Fix, there is insufficient raking to permit a good view from anywhere except, it seemed, the first two rows. As a deal of critical action took place on the floor, much was missed simply because it couldn’t be seen. An inexpensive platform upon which the actors could perform would have made a world of difference.
The acoustics in the new auditorium seem warm and alive, much more so than in the old premises. There is a well equipped lighting rig and comfortable space for a small band. It is a space full of space and offers theatrical possibilities of a completely different kind to the former space.
Michael Strassen’s revival of The Fix seems, understandably, like it belongs in the former space and not the new space. It is not a production designed for the new space, or at least that is not how it feels. That which might have worked splendidly before is seen in a different, harsher gaze; the new space commands a new style and this production does not always have that.
Satirical musicals are rare enough, but satirical political musicals are even rarer. The Fix is just that however. Written by John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music), the team behind The Witches Of Eastwick, the musical concerns the Chandler family and its connection with power and corruption.
Reed Chandler is on the road to the White House when his heart fails during sexual relations with a woman not his wife. Violet, his wife, who sees the West Wing as her entitlement, decides that if she can’t be First Lady she will be the mother of the President. She blackmails her husband’s gay, polio afflicted brother, Grahame, to be the campaign and strategy manager for her son, Cal, willing to play a long game to get what she wants.
Cal, however, is a lost soul, unloved by his status hungry parents and lonely. He finds solace in liquor and girls. Uncle Grahame changes all that, sends him to the Army, marries him off to a rich pliable lass, and sets about constructing his political future. But Cal is too scared to face the onerous demands of press conferences and endless questions about his policies and plans.
So, Violet orders loyal security chief Peter to fix Cal’s fears. Peter uses cocaine as the fix de jour, thereby starting a vicious cycle which sees Cal alternate between darling and demon of the press, selling his honour to underground figures to secure his public reputation, and finding solace with a dancer, wryly named Tina, who works for the underground boss.
There are many fixes at play. Grahame fixed his brother’s career and now seeks to fix Cal’s. Violet seeks to fix her powerful reputation. Peter seeks to fix everything. Tina tries to fix Cal. Cal tries to fix Tina, fix the notion that politics must be dishonest and, finally, fix himself. Cocaine is a temporary and destructive fix for Cal. Violet and Grahame try to fix each other, but not in a good way. Underground figure Anthony Gliardi can, and does, fix anything.
Strassen opts for the piece to have an air of the Kennedys wafting through the presentation. This works well enough and lends a natural foundation to the satirical aspects. This sense of reality is sought to be expounded through the characterisations of both Cal and Tina; they are portrayed as real, but flawed, people caught up in the ruthless political/empire ambitions of other characters. Fra Fee (Cal) and Madalena Alberto (Tina) garner sympathy easily through; both are bewildered, inveigled into performing specific roles, put their absolute trust in others and are utterly betrayed. Their final moments together are genuinely affecting.
But this sense of naturalness comes at a cost. The work itself is much more Chicago or Cabaret than Next to Normal; it is a flashy, showy vehicle full of potential show-stoppers and arch moments of comic or dramatic fizz. Really, it is full of types rather than real people. To succeed as well as it might, it needs sharp, sexy, ebullient performances which run with the material and show it off as best as possible.
Here, Strassen’s approach seeks to have a bit of both worlds. There are big production numbers with suitably stylish and interesting choreography (also Strassen’s work) such as One, Two, Three, America’s Son, Simple Words and Dangerous Games, and there are solo numbers which seek a more enigmatic, introspective feel: I See The Future, Lonely Is A Two-Way Street, Spin. A more consistent approach to delivery of the score, its manner and style of presentation, might have reaped greater benefits.
At the moment, Strassen’s production of The Fix seems too long, especially in Act Two. Partly, this is because some numbers don’t work well enough because they are played with loud intensity rather than wry guile or restrained capriciousness. First Came Mercy, Upper Hand and Spin all suffer because of the way they are performed, the nature of the characters who deliver them. They stand in stark contrast to numbers such as Two Guys At Harvard, a terrific duet in exactly the right style.
But the main problem lies with the cardboard villainy of some central characters and the lack of starry bravura performances full of complexity and panache. Lucy Williamson’s Violet is a black widow spider of kinds; part Rose Kennedy, part Liza Minnelli, part Scandal’s Victoria Grayson and part Morticia from The Addams Family – but without enough of Velma from Chicago. Ken Christiansen is too much anger and angst as the crippled Grahame; more sardonic style would have assisted him. Together, they are cartoon villains clutching at the possibility of aching backstories, which leaves the raucous enjoyment of send-up performances just a wistful thought. Sadly. Both seem capable of finer work (and can clearly sing) and no doubt will provide that as the run progresses.
Fra Fee, who has the toned physique and hair for Jon Snow – the Musical (rather than the Ivy League hairstyle Cal ought to be sporting), is immensely likeable as Cal, the reluctant candidate for public office, and he plays the lost child aspect of the character splendidly. He also rises to the occasion during both key Press Conferences when Cal goes off-piste and leaves Grahame and Violet aghast.
Fee has a beautiful voice but it does not seem to suit Rowe’s energetic and brassy music as well as it might – a more rock ballad tenor is needed. In his middle register, Free excels; but at the top of the parts of the score where Cal should be piercing and belting, Fee, while always in tune and clear, surprisingly does not ring out.
Madalena Alberto’s Tina was too introspective, too mousy, and there was little chemistry between her and Fee. The very best performance came from Peter Saul Blewden who played two roles: Cal’s father, Reed and the family Godfather, Gliardi. Blewden had the style right for both: he played his parts with relish and style, suitably revelling in the preposterous nature of the situations.
As the often-silent, sartorially on-it Peter, Sam Barrett was nicely arch and sang very well. Alastair Hill did a lot of good ensemble work and sang well throughout the show, which made his star moment, The Ballad of Bobby ‘Cracker’ Barrel very surprising: barely a word he sang then was understandable. Perhaps this revealed a dead acoustic spot in the performance space but it was not in line with either the rest of Barrett’s winning performance or the approach to balance between score and words which was otherwise evident in Musical Director Josh Sood’s approach.
Daryl Armstrong made a very funny Frankie Diamanti and excelled in the ensemble work as did Rhys Benjamin (very amusing solo dance work), Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Francesca Leyland and Laura Bryars. Kate Parr made an excellent, compliant wife for Cal and exuded style that was both uncaring and accepting. Generally speaking, the Ensemble singing was excellent, the harmonies strong and clear and the energy and attack the group brought to the execution of Strassen’s choreography was superb. Occasionally, some of the routines sat oddly with the material and the setting, but always the Ensemble did what they were asked with zeal and precision.
Sood ensured that the rhythm and pulse of the score was appropriately energised and maintained across the evening. The small band of five played precisely and with flair, and revealed the many joys of Rowe’s exciting score. Dempsey’s lyrics are sharp and cynical, and Sood ensures they are given as much prominence as the melodies.
There isn’t really a set here – which, actually, is a pity. This production feels like it needs a set. Jean Gray’s costumes work best for the Ensemble, providing a film noir feel which is very appropriate. The lighting design from Iain Dennis is haphazard; he creates a clever effect to represent the flashing of dozens of press cameras and there is a lot of colour and mood impressively brought to proceedings. But there are definite dead spots in the lighting plot and not everyone in the cast is equal to the task of “finding the light”. Faces are unfortunately obscured by shadow too often. (This will no doubt diminish as an issue as the run proceeds.)
The Fix is, potentially, a terrific musical. It cries out for a fresh, vibrant and holistic production – which emphasises the fun inherent in the satire, underlines the sex and show business in the politics of the Chandler family’s power hunt, and lets the music and lyrics shine as they ought. Done that way, it could have a life like the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago has had.
Strassen’s enjoyable production is worth going out of your way to see and, rightly, brings The Fix back into the spotlight and lets new audiences consider it afresh. That is one of the great and enduring strengths of the Union Theatre under Sasha Regan – putting musicals, new and old, back on the stage.
It is reassuring that while the premises might be new, the spirit of the old Union Theatre endures.