Harbridge’s Marie is onstage throughout the show on a huge round bed (from scenic designer Michael Hankin) on the day of her last birthday January 15, 1847. The story (told in 19 short scenes) is narrated by Garth Holcombe on mike as one of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, who was to immortalize her in his autobiographical novel, The Lady of the Camellias. Aside from Holcombe who also plays the Germanic Doktor Koreff, all the other characters are played by Simon Corfield with various accoutrements, facial hair and assorted accents. The nine songs, ballads, music hall numbers, and pop songs, by Basil Hogios (who is also the onstage musician) and Harbridge are all played with a hard rock beat, much in the same way that Spring Awakening recounted its 19th century story.
Lying on her death bed from tuberculosis, Marie first addresses us with her advice and wisdom and then reenacts her life from abject poverty living on fried potatoes to becoming one of the most famous and sought after women in France. The text is a mash-up of fractured French (always translated for our benefit) and colloquial English, with such modern references as microphones, spam, existentialism, rom-com, Australian director Baz Luhrman and actor Ewan McGregor, both responsible for the film Moulin Rouge, the latest depiction of Marie’s story.
Abandoned by her father when she was only a child, Marie discovers that she is desirable and can please men who are willing to pay big money to support her. Among her aristocratic lovers are Agenor du Gramont from one of France’s oldest families, Vicomte Eduourd Du Perragaux (nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte), the elderly Count Gustav Ernst Von Stackelberg, and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, the world’s first superstar. Dead at 23 after a decadent life, Marie lived in the fast lane, and was famous for saying “It is not me who dances too fast, it’s the violins who play too slow.”
Among the comic devices in the text are Marie’s advice which always begins with “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…,” some tidbits which are priceless pieces of wisdom, others which are minority choices. Anthony’s inventive direction includes an actual pillow fight, and an extended orgy sequence. Aside from Harbridge’s two solos, Corfield and Holcombe join in on all the musical numbers, which are each staged differently. Harbridge and Anthony served as co-choreographers for the musical staging.
Harbridge is notable for her oversized personality as the legendary Marie, switching moods on a dime, suggesting endless energy, and just as quickly breathless as though she is dying from what was then called consumption. Dressed only in a rose colored bustier and a pink teddy she is totally uninhibited as a woman described as a “courtesan, party girl, liar and legend.” You will not soon forget her performance.
She is ably supported by Holcombe with his classic Byronic good looks as Dumas and the narrator, and the boyish-looking Corfield who demonstrates his versatility playing six characters including four of Marie’s lovers as well as her maid Clothilde and Marie at age 12. Hogios’ musical direction has a great deal of intensity througout. Lisa Mimmocchi is responsible for the very French looking costumes, while Alex Berlage is credited with the atmospheric lighting which changes in each sequence.
Definitely not for children, Songs for the Fallen is a sophisticated cabaret/vaudeville celebrating the decadent life. Its main character Marie Duplessis, better known today as Marguerite Gautier, aka Camille, gives Australian singer/actress/playwright Sheridan Harbridge a star turn of which she takes full possesion. You may feel as exhausted as Harbridge’s Marie looks at the end of this dense and crowded show, but you will know you have had a complete theatrical experience.
Songs for the Fallen (July 23 – 27, 2015)
New York Musical Theatre Festival
Theatre 3, 311 W. 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 25 minutes