Flatline with Two Sugars is dark magical realism, a bittersweet mix of tragedy, comedy, and bleak reality. A dreary cafe barista has an unwanted gift in which she visualises the time and means of someone’s death just by touching them. This musical sees Lucie’s desperately confined life turn upside down, and we get to experience the drama, excitement, heartache, and even black comedy pleasures that go along with it.
What strikes me about the musical is, well, the music. Katie Morton’s expressive score transports us into Lucie’s tragic, yet quirky world. Morton’s writing is dramatic and emotive, but sophisticated and nuanced. The songs with the acoustic strings and piano ensemble support a journey of emotions, textures and styles, whether it be a heartfelt ballad of desperate longing or a fiery upbeat jazz tune. The rhythmic drive is rousing in numbers such as “Do You Really Want to Know?” and “Tick Tock”, as is the exciting triple (plus) countermelodies in “Why?”, with its clever counter-lyrics by Laura Gardner.
Ellie Stewart and Cassandra Tse both have rich, creamy voices that work together beautifully in their portrayal of the protagonist Lucie (Stewart) and her love interest Ana (Tse). Stewart nails some hefty sings, and powerfully sells the gut-wrenching storytelling in “Quiet”. This song also standouts for its marriage of music and lyrics, and the jaunty macabre string accompaniment. Cassandra Tse is a standout as Ana, offering the necessary feistiness for the show’s momentum and energy. Ana is a charming complainer, charming because of Laura Gardner’s hilariously long complaining lists. They feel realistically familiar while being suitably over-dramatised by Katie Morton's vigorous musical setting. Tse pulls Ana off with vocal flair. She falls naturally into her jazz-flavoured arrangements, including the these rapid-fire “world out to get me” rants, and her comforting, wooing, tenderness in “Some Kind of Days”. It is refreshingly wonderful to see three kickass female leads, including Cara, played warmly by India Loveday, even if the men are painted in a negative arrogant, annoying or aggressive light. Lucie’s boss Jake, for a tame example, is attracted to and acts like he owns Lucie. Kevin Orlando, sells this ‘assholery’ with dynamic energy.
Book and lyrics writer, Laura Gardner, explores the miserable side of supernatural gifts. She cleverly creates a paranormal tale anchored in bleak reality, and still manages to make light moments out of the dark. The cafe setting which is all-too-familiar with many Wellingtonians, especially ‘hospo’ workers, offers a basis for fun ‘hospo’ winks. Some jokes and exchanges feel a little on the nose or cliche at times, such as the “smile more” cliche, the boss’s aggression and attraction towards his employee. Granted, some of these characters seem intentional stereotypes and many of the situations realistic, even if cliche. Sometimes it is hard to tell if we laugh out of humourous recognition or nervousness, either from moments that don’t quite seem to sit naturally, or our guilty pleasure from black humour. Perhaps it is a gloriously unsettling mixture. Gardener also draws us in at the heartfelt moments, of which there are many. Despite both the hilarities and the emotional rollercoaster, the reality of Lucie’s supernatural ‘gift’ builds a refreshing, bittersweet commentary on the imperfect conditions in our lives, whatever they may be.
The staged chamber ensemble supports Lucie’s journey musically and theatrically. They seem vocally exposed at points, but are impressive considering the challenging music. They help to inject energy. However, some of their choreography comes across slightly awkward, or even hints at creepy in “Take my Hand”, and occasionally pulls from moments that feel like they want to be more sincere. I also wonder if the ensemble could be utilised more for increasing the energy and pace near the start of the musical. The ensemble is most effective in both painting everyday backdrops and manifesting the internal torment of the protagonist, which becomes increasingly sinister towards the end. The skilled performers also launch into convincing and often hilarious cameo role stereotypes, especially Alex Rabina as a self-indulgent busker and Vishan Appana as a 'hospo' worker’s worst nightmare.
The Gryphon Theatre has been given a specific audience arrangement for this festival, with two seating blocks in the black box at right angles with a large gap in between. As an audience member, I get a thrill from the fresh arrangement, but occasionally have difficulty with sightlines or feel left out of performances in the other direction for a decent length of time. Director Karen Anslow has taken care with the ensemble staging to work in all directions. However, some intimate moments between Lucie and Ana might have been better presented in front on staging. I think it is fair to say this musical may have simply drawn the short straw to support the rest of the festival which may suit split, angled seating.
Karen Anslow's minimal set design, a partially collapsible cafe set-up including a raised platform counter, is effective as a practical base for Lucie’s cafe scenes. Unfortunately there are quite a few alternative locations that the set often gets in the way of, with a brilliant waterfront scene as an exception. The lighting, designed by Aaron Blackledge & Darryn Woods, and operated by Patrick Barnes, is incredibly tight and effectively signals the divide between the natural world and Lucie’s supernatural visions with flashes or sections of sinister green. The costuming is naturalistic and character centred, apart from the ensemble blacks with occasional additions. Although I am not easily a fan of blacks, they work here to highlight the leads and ensemble cameo roles.
Flatline with Two Sugars is an unsettling but humorous musical drama that will have you feeling heartache and a taste of guilty comedic pleasure. It is a weighty new musical on for three more nights at the Gryphon Theatre until Saturday 9th.