Theater review: ‘Razorhurst’ is a battle beyond the death
A new musical
Book & lyrics by Kate Mulley,
music by Andy Peterson
Through March 4
Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
“Razorhurst,” a play about two notorious female criminals and rivals in Sydney, Australia, who had their heyday in the 1920s, is set in a café which is the site of a former speakeasy, long after both women are dead. Tillie Devine (Claire McClanahan), a brothel keeper, and Kate Leigh (Catherine Fries Vaughn), a bootlegger (seller of “sly grog,” and cocaine) appear in the joint to argue over their legacies. Was Leigh truly “the worst woman in Sydney?” Why did nobody raise a glass to Devine when she died?
The new two-hander musical, by Kate Mulley, directed by Luna Artistic Director Cheryl Black, with Montclair’s Kaitlin Stillwell as dramaturg, opened at Luna Stage on Feb. 1 and runs through March 4. The stage is engagingly set up as the café, with audience at the tables, as well as in the theater seats, and the actresses move among us, sometimes looking right at us as they sing their stories. So realistic is the exposed brick wall coffee shop that it is disappointing you’re not allowed to keep sipping coffee during the show (Note to directors and designers: don’t do that. If you put the audience onstage in a restaurant let them eat and drink. You really don’t want to start the show with audience members feeling sorry for themselves, looking longingly at fake muffins.)
Since the ladies invoke the audience to judge their stories, we present this review in the form of an argument.
DEFENSE (PRO): The story of these two baddies is new to most of us, and it really heats up when we get to the razor wars that lead the newspapers to rename the neighborhood of Darlinghurst “Razorhurst.”
PROSECUTION (CON): Most of the story is just that: told to us as a story. There are some enacted scenes, but too much is told instead of shown.
PRO: Having the two women be dead already allows us to hear their whole stories.
CON: The frame is vague. Why did Kate come back for the first time today? (We gather Tillie has been there before). Why does Tillie carry a razor still, but quips that sugar can’t rot her teeth because she’s dead? And who is the audience supposed to be? Since the frame is vague, the stakes are low, and the play seems to end because 90 minutes have gone by rather than the story was concluded.
PRO: Music by Andy Peterson was nicely varied and often engaging. McClanahan in particular really sold her “music hall” number.
CON: The first song is impossible to sing, with a scoop on the word “worst” that made Vaughn’s voice strain. It goes on too long and is reprised, too. Each character has a dramatic song that stops the action cold: and despite each actress singing her heart out, the emotion in both is unearned, depending on our reaction to characters we’ve heard little about.
PRO: Gorgeous period costumes and wigs from Deborah Caney. Nice lighting from Luna regular (and Montclair resident) Jorge Arroyo.
CON: McClanahan at times looked very unstable in her shoes, and Vaughn left without putting her fur back on. Since we are just feet away from the actresses, it’s hard not to notice these things. Similarly while it is a character trait that Leigh is Australian and Leigh is a Londoner, battling accents felt more mannered than enlightening.
PRO: The idea to reclaim these two women from history, especially during this new feminist moment, is terrific. Full marks to Luna and the whole creative team.
CON: See note about the frame, and the lack of drama happening in front of our eyes. And the feminist aspect to their story is explored only briefly with an exchange at the end, never staged.
VERDICT: (Surprise?) Not guilty. “Razorhurst” is a fun evening in the theater, despite its flaws. It’s innocent of the crime being boring — and it