After 10 years of John Howard, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a musical about him. The rise and crash of the mercurial Paul Keating is another matter. Keating! -“ the musical -“ began as a cabaret act at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and after a brief spell in Sydney rightly won the Helpmann Award for best original score.
Director Neil Armfield has now revamped it with musical director Casey Bennetto but the show basically remains a cabaret, a string of high-octane, satirical songs with strong backing from an onstage band.
I like my musical satires varied with comic interludes and direct rapport -“ something like the Sydney Theatre Company revues -“ and found at first the endless song cycle of Keating! a little repetitive. But the breadth and vigour of Bennetto’s musical styles and the bite of his lyrics redeems all.
John Howard may have his power walks, but this Keating reaches for the stars with tap and soft-shoe, ballads and crooning, reggae and rock. Immaculately groomed, Mike McLeish plays him as an ambitious lounge lizard. I thought initially McLeish lacked the necessary gravitas to do Keating, but when the original soft-shoed onto the stage from the opening night audience to take the applause, I wondered rather whether Keating himself ever had gravitas. But, again, with music like this who cares?
Keating woos Hewson into a spidery web with a ballad about doing him slowly. He rocks with the sweetest victory of all in 1993. And he’s hilariously self-satisfied as the band acclaim him as The Man to the rhythms of an African spiritual.
Terry Serio serves up an amusing silver-haired Hawke but his master stroke is his demonically small-minded John Howard, at first the boy in the schoolyard determined to win power over the bullies, later The Cricketer, The Soldier and The Farmer, all singing of manipulation in the name of mateship.
Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot sing together a love ballad about being misaligned; and Bennetto squeezes into corset and stockings to deliver an impossibly raunchy Alexander Downer declaiming how liberal he is to the man.
Keating though has the last word when history is miraculously reversed and he’s actually the winner in 1996. A delighted audience is left with a sweet ballad about that old light on the hill. Lovers of Keating -“ and sophisticated and well-staged satire -“ will love this.
Keating! at Belvoir Street Theatre is sold out until 23 December but the season is now extended into January.