Review: Toby Francis: Love and Death and an American Guitar – Hayes Theatre

There’s not much question about it anymore: Toby Francis is the new rockstar of independent musical theatre. The ex-punk with a heart of gold spent his last cabaret digging into the music of Queen, and this time, he’s really outdone himself in the best possible way.

In Love and Death and an American Guitar, written by Francis in his best constructed narrative for a cabaret yet, he tries out a new structure, taking on a character. Francis is Jim Steinman, rock legend. If you don’t know the name, you know his songs. They’re on the Meatloaf rock masterpiece Bat Out of Hell. They’re in your favourite karaoke ballads, “It’s All Coming Back to me Now” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” He’s also written for the theatre, for Whistle Down the Wind and Tanz der Vampire. He was, also, originally considered to write for a little project that would become The Phantom of the Opera.

Toby Francis. Image by Blueprint Studios
Toby Francis. Image by Blueprint Studios

In other words, Steinman is a perfect fit for Francis, whose tenor slides into guttural rock or pure falsetto with surprising suppleness. The tortured musician who just wants to make a dystopian, dark Peter Pan musical – called Neverland (think West Side Story meets every dystopian film set in New York) – and really get in there with the grit and the pain. And the motorcycles.

But Steinman never got Neverland off the ground. The guy who wrote Bat out of Hell would never become the drawcard the guy singing it turned out to be, and he couldn’t settle on an ending for the show, anyway, because endings clearly make him anxious.

Francis settles beautifully into the Steinman persona, and what’s impressive about this cabaret is that is possibly the finest instance of acting in a Sydney cabaret this year. Steinman is rough yet sincere, frustrated but genuinely talented; his reactions, actions, and speech rhythms are completely believable. Francis in his script hasn’t allowed much room to breathe between performance and dialogue but it makes sense here, this idea that Steinman doesn’t so much separate the music from the self, that he thinks in the space between, above, around notes.

The songs are everything you want them to be and thanks to musical director Andrew Worboys, there’s a strong presence of rock in such a small space. Starting perfectly with the spoken word “Wasted Youth” to set the scene, we burst into sound with “Bat Out of Hell.” The highlights come quickly, remarkably, assisted in places by Noni McCallum: “Holding Out for a Hero”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, “It’s All Coming Back to me Now”, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.”

Francis and McCallum understand the rock voice vernacular; they walk the breathless line between fury and tenderness. Francis is in his element here and the audience experience was actually, in moments, thrilling: a genuine sense of unexpected, exciting territory.

A tiny case of opening night jitters impeded in a lyric fumble or two, but no one cared: they were two busy clapping out the catchy beat of “You Took the Words Right out of my Mouth” (you know it, you’re doing it in your head right now) and singing along.

Francis is a real, singular talent, and if you haven’t sat up and taken notice yet, Love and Death and an American Guitar will make you do just that. Well written, acted, and sung, this show is part of a quiet little movement at the Hayes, where emerging talents like Francis and Hilary Cole, Blake Erickson and Michael Griffiths, are stepping up to show off their multi-platform skills.

Sydney performers, you can’t rest on your cabaret laurels anymore. Young performers like Francis are coming for you, and it’s a great, great thing to watch.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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