So much has been written, uttered, surmised and made up about Marilyn Monroe that the search for a “new angle” is likely to be a fruitless one: thus Norma Jeane – The Musical appears to have been sired by Hollywood Myth out of Cliché Central.
The two major prerequisites of a musical are strong, memorable songs and an engaging plot. The plot here is that Norma Jeane Miller is checked into a lunatic asylum for three days and … er … that’s about it really. Oh yes, and she hears voices. The slant that T.L. Shannon, the writer, would like us to take from this is that Norma Jeane was schizophrenic. A split personality. Or personalities: we have a total of four Norma Jeanes during the course of the show. But when you hear voices, I am reliably informed, they tend to be unidentified strangers who urge you to do things you would not normally do.
In Norma Jeane’s case they turn out to be the long cast-list of characters from her past reminding her of episodes that shaped her iconic personality and now haunt her dreams. So, actually, we’re talking memories. And the asylum is an excuse to do a biopic on stage about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Being stuck in an asylum for the whole show though frankly gets a bit wearing.
And the songs? I searched the credit list in the programme suspecting I might find those well-known musical composers Cumbersome and Clunky but could find no credits other than Musical director Alex Bellamy, also responsible for orchestrations, and Dan Glover for Additional Orchestrations. (My musician guest asked “what orchestrations?”) But in a separate list of songs I discovered no less than eight songwriters. This confirmed my initial reaction that this was music-by- numbers. The thought occurred that this must be like american sit-com writing teams: they all sit round a table and someone says: who fancies the Big Ballad? And who wants to do the Funny One by the Quirky Character? Anyone for the Fifties Pastiche? And we need a Rousing Chorus Number of course? Etc.
Although the effervescent cast gave it their all there was nothing memorable about the songs none of which passed the Willy Russell Hummable Test. So back to the plot. Norma Jeane is still in the Asylum and … yes … there are more voices. Enter the brightest spark of the evening Joanne Clifton as Norma Jeane’s alter ego, Marilyn. Clifton is an accomplished dancer – unfortunately we are only allowed snippets of those skills – but through acting and gesture she presents us with an entirely believable, and at times humorous, Marilyn Monroe. She looks like her (easy), moves like her (not so easy in tight frocks), has her full range of gestures (difficult) and exudes Marilyn’s entire repertoire of pouting emotions quite often as a backdrop to other action on stage (most difficult of all). But she had no voice. Whether this was because her vocal chords have been temporarily incapacitated – the bits I could hear were tuneful – or whether this was a deliberate decision to try and replicate the husky, sultry tones of the Marilyn we are all familiar with I don’t know but it was disappointing. Generally the singing was good but the one person who could really sing, Ruth Betteridge as Young Norma Jeane, only has one solo number which is a shame as her high-quality voice adds real depth and colour to the ensemble numbers.
So … back to the plot. Still in the asylum and … you’ve got it … more voices. Estranged Mother, Surrogate Father, First Husband and, I think this is the root cause of all of Marilyn’s problems, every time a new voice pops into her head so does a a troupe of four male dancers. It’s enough to send anyone scurrying for the valium. The choreography is uninspired, repetitive and quite often just does not work. Not helped at all by the completely unimaginative lighting, we start to feel like Pavlov’s dogs with the voice-song- dancers stimulus as inevitable as a JFK conspiracy theory. The show switches repeatedly from present reality to past memory to Hollywood fantasy but Lighting Designer Sky Bembury, and Director Christopher Swann just don’t seem to notice. With the impressive array of lanterns and technical capability that LOST theatre provides this is a considerable missed opportunity.
So back to the plot. Still in the asylum and yet more voices. Narrator Voice Marion (Joseph Bader) gives us both barrels of the show’s underlying message in the immortal line “Life f*cks us all up” and name-checks the two voices we would all dearly love to hear/see – Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio.
No such luck I’m afraid. Arthur Miler – surely another surrogate father figure? – gets scant mention though we do get the inevitable oh-so- subtle Crucible reference through the persona of Doctor McCarthy (Hugo Joss Catton) and apparently Joltin’ Joe turns up at the end but makes no entrance leaving a lone voice in the audience to call out “Where are you now, Joe DiMaggio?” Presumably no-one on the song-writing team put up their hand for the Sports Commentator Calypso.
Review by Peter Yates
NORMA JEANE: THE MUSICAL
In the dark days of 1961, eighteen months before she died, Marilyn Monroe was sent to a lunatic asylum when she thought she was being sent to a spa for rest and relaxation. This fascinating musical charts the three days she spent there. As she begins coming off the drink and drugs that had become the norm in her Hollywood lifestyle her mind starts wandering between past and present. Her hallucinations draw the audience into the chaos of her mind and darkly foreshadow the tragedy that is soon to come.
Date: 30th May – 19th June
Times: 19:30 (15:00 Sat/Sun Matinee)