Michael, Rosemarie and Constantine Costi,
Belvoir Theatre Downstairs, 16 November 2018
Witten by Paul Bennett
Re-imaging a classic from a Russian master such as Gogol can be a challenging and risky process especially when you add a change in format to the mix, but Constantine, Michael and Rosemarie Costi have delivered a fresh new music theatre adaptation which amplifies and illuminates the timeless truths in the original short story.
The Overcoat, along with the play The Government Inspector and The Nose (in its operatic form with music by Shostakovich) represents Nikolai Gogol’s best known and most enduring works. The story is simple, yet timeless – Nikolai (Akaky Akakievich in the original story) is a loser. Socially inept, lacking self-esteem and with no ambition other than to endlessly copy others’ text, he’s an object of derision and an easy target in the self-serving world of the public service office in which he works. His coat is shabby, winter is coming and so he finds an alcoholic tailor (Aaron Tsindos in a nicely over-the-top performance) to make him a new coat which he pays for by selling everything he has and starving himself. Dressed in his new coat Nikolai is a transformed man – confident, authoritative and socially at ease. But of course, it can’t last and when his coat is stolen by a mugger and he can’t convince the police or anyone of influence to help him, his demise and untimely death is just a matter of time. Nikolai’s outer transformation has not led to inner growth and the compromises he has made make his life unsustainable when he loses his prop.
The strength of this production is based on three factors – the adaptation, the acting and the music. All the characters with the exception of Nikolai are caricatures and Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel and Aaron Tsindos have a great time playing government officials, shady characters and the police. Their performance is uniformly large, energetic and appropriately humorous. It’s a perfect platform for Charles Wu as Nikolai to play against and to show us the real emotions underlying the events. Yes, Nikolai is himself a caricature but his disappointments and his emotional journey are real. Charles Wu presents those transitions in a very nuanced way which keeps us involved for the duration and prevents the production veering off into farce or melodrama.
And then there is the music – composed by Rosemarie Costi with lyrics by Michael Costi and performed superbly by Sarah Evans (double bass) Josh Willard (saxophone) and Tate Sheridan (piano). The jazz infused score fitted the mood perfectly. The rise and fall of the pace and emotional intensity in the score was well thought out and complemented the action. Most of the music was incidental but the songs gave the audience a nice chance to reflect on the journey at a couple of important points in the narrative. There was more than a nod to Sondheim at times and like the best of Sondheim, the music served the drama not vice versa.
Directed by Constantine Costi, this re-imaging of the Gogol classic as music theatre is humorous enjoyable and thought provoking – which if the theatre historians are correct, is the same effect that Gogol achieved when he first published The Overcoat in 1842 – a vintage to be savoured!!
Paul Bennett for SoundsLikeSydney©
Dr Paul Bennett is a medical musician- part of the long tradition of medical doctors whose passion is music but whose day job is medicine. Paul trained in piano at the Sydney Conservatorium under Margaret Hughes and has since been involved with many choirs and soloists as an accompanist and teacher. His special interest is jazz and he’s the pianist in the Sydney jazz trio “Not The Full List”. Paul has an active interest in the use of film and video production in medical education and he has a qualification from the Australian Film,Television and Radio School.