“An enormous array of talent on display”

Jonnie Barrow enjoys a bumpy ride through a musical twist on a classic

Photo: Aleksandra Cywinska

A running theme of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is hypocrisy in social performance. The story examines Anna’s success in keeping up a socially acceptable facade as her actions run contrary to societal norms. This thematic idea makes the story perfect for adapting into performative mediums such as film and theatre, where the audience’s suspended disbelief required for the performance to work is mirrored by the scepticism of some of the characters on the stage towards Anna’s actions. Despite some first-night nerves, this original musical adaptation of Tolstoy’s (literally and figuratively) heavy tome is a mostly successful adaptation of a notoriously tricky work to do justice to.

The show has clearly sprung from a close-knit creative team with a cohesive and unified vision. The script (penned by co-directors Suzy Cripps, James Tibbles, and musical director/composer Maria Shepard) contains some really smart creative decisions to streamline the story’s focus without sacrificing dramatic integrity.

With such well-drawn characters, it’s sometimes almost a shame when the story judders to a halt to make way for another musical number. The score and sung numbers were mostly engaging, although the score often emphasised rather than camouflaged a couple of abrupt tonal transitions between scenes. The songs themselves are pleasant, though not memorable, and too often lapse into the trope whereby two characters sing different things over the top of each other to communicate their feelings. The simpler numbers work better, with a particular stand-out being the wickedly funny “That Is What’s Expected From A Woman” as well as the more sonorous ensemble pieces.

The whole cast and crew are terrific, really bringing the best out of the material. Amschel de Rothschild and Susannah Hardwick create sweet chemistry in the romantic subplot of Kitty and Konstantin, while Caitlin Kelly is a wicked delight as the duplicitous Betsy, who always feels one step away from breaking into a Mean Girls-style Regina George impression.

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With such a talented cast, it’s pleasing to see the directors showcasing certain performers’ individual talents too. Phoebe Mansell’s dancing, Amschel de Rothschild’s accordion playing, and Hardwick’s soprano skills really add to the texture of the show and breathe extra life into scenes where these skills are brought to the fore.

The action is well staged for the most part, with a particularly stylish flourish at the denouement involving a train ending the show on a strong note. That said, the play’s beginning is a little awkward and slow (though it quickly settles down), and some of the ensemble dance numbers feel a little constrained by the stage space.

As for the main storyline, the three principal performers form a delightfully watchable trio. Henry Jacobs, as Alexei Karenin, is the best of the three, taking a character who is designed to be boring and making him both fascinating and sympathetic. Alex Buchanan does a sterling job as Anna’s lover, Alexei Vronsky, but it is Anna herself whose performance proves the most thought-provoking.

Amelia Gabriel as Anna is an enchanting stage presence, iridescently watchable and enormously talented at both acting and singing. However, her face naturally settles into a smile, and while this contributes to the scenes where she and Vronsky fall in love, it occasionally jars during scenes in the second half when we’re asked to buy into Anna’s dispiritedness. Yet it also strangely plays to the thematic core of the story, drawing attention to the performative aspect of Anna’s attempts to coalesce her desires with society’s norms.

This is by no means a perfect show, but it is undeniably watchable thanks to the enormous array of talent on display. If every audience laughs and cries as much as the audience on opening night, there’s perhaps no greater measure of success for a show than that.