Review: The Ritz (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 5, 2016
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: David Marshall-Martin
Cast: Les Asmussen, Meagan Caratti, Samuel Christopher, Jarryd Clancy, Ricci Costa, John Edwards, John Farndale, Lisa Franey, Ivan Hui, William Koutsoukis, Adam Kovarik, Rosane McNamara, Marty O’Neill, David Ross, James Smithers, Barton Williams
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
It may be argued that there was only a small window of time in LGBT history, when stories were being published and told in theatres about vibrant queer experiences. The emergence of the gay rights movement alongside the sexual revolution of late 1960’s opened the doors to artistic expression that began to take queer lives out of the closet, but before much momentum was able to be achieved, the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s signalled the return of oppressive powers, and although LGBT stories continued to be produced, they were turned much darker to reflect the sombre times of death and community destruction.

Terrence McNally’s The Ritz first appeared on Broadway in 1975, and although its protagonist Proclo is heterosexual, the action takes place in a gay bathhouse in Manhattan, with a host of vivacious gay men providing the core structure to its narrative, along with an endless stream of campy punchlines. Their proud and exuberant sexuality is its central appeal, in fact Proclo’s story is almost ancillary, existing only as an excuse for the rambunctious humour to unfold. The infamy of pre-AIDS bathhouse culture finds itself represented here in all its shame-free glory, in the form of a classic American farce (admittedly not to everyone’s tastes), complete with accents, stereotypes and show tunes.

Director David Marshall-Martin brings to the production a potent nostalgia that many will appreciate, and an energetic madcap style of comedy perfect for the script. The old-fashioned quality of the show takes some getting used to, but it does get increasingly charming through the course of the evening, aided by the bawdiness of the writing that Marshall-Martin is able to present with a surprising edginess, despite its use-by date.

Leading man Les Asmussen is an endearing and effervescent presence, with an ability to communicate and connect with his audience effortlessly. The actor’s strong instincts ensures that on-stage chemistry is consistently buoyant, and his generous nature as a performer keeps us engrossed. Similarly engaging is Samuel Christopher in the role of Chris, an extremely flamboyant character who has a joke ready for every situation. Christopher’s comedic skills are a highlight of the show, leaving a lasting impression with bold choices and immaculate timing. Also very funny is Meagan Caratti, who embraces the boisterous tone of the show to deliver some of its biggest laughs. Her passionate commitment is paralleled by an emotional warmth that allows her character Googie to become one of the more believable personalities in this outlandish presentation.

The style of The Ritz might not be innovative, but the portrayal of unbridled joy by its community of gay men is refreshing. We might be in a new century, but we remain burdened by the darkest days of AIDS and its indelible negative impact on sexual freedoms. The rampant sex and promiscuity of The Ritz was a result of emancipation that was meant to be celebratory. Its intention was to welcome a new era of equality and acceptance, but we now look at those behaviour as an archaic oddity. It is a vision of pride that we have lost, replaced by something less assertive, maybe even slightly ordinary.