From what would seem to be the most unlikely source material, Duncan Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have fashioned a dazzling and original musical theatre piece. The source is Bret Easton Ellis’ novel and, though slight adjustments have been made to make it palatable for a Broadway audience, it remains startling and entertaining throughout. Rupert Goold has staged it boldly, Es Devlin, and Katrina Lindsay on scenery and costumes have merged with the lighting design of Justin Townsend to give it a 1980s look that is stunning.
Benjamin Walker has been flirting with stardom for some time, contributing his good looks and affable personality to the varied lot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (the revival in which he turned Scarlett Johansson into Maggie the Cat) to the wildly different Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and the last revival of Inherit the Wind. But the role of Patrick Bateman in this daring musical puts him center stage with the kind of performance that turned Hugh Jackman into a major musical theatre star in The Boy From Oz.
The achievement is all the more remarkable because Patrick Bateman, the character he plays, is insane. He lives in a world in which he doesn’t seem odd at all. His colleagues on Wall Street, all of them dashing and competitive and synthetic, find him delightful, the leader of their pack. Now and then he runs across a true enemy, and one such is Paul Owen, played with unctuous charm by Drew Moerlein. He’s met his match, the perfect catalyst to ignite Bateman’s murderous instincts. Feelings don’t exist for Patrick Bateman, and a girl named Evelyn Williams, as demented as he, is about the only one who wants the handsome man on her arm, and in her bed, so she will put up with his total lack of real interest in her, or in anyone else. The word ‘solipsistic’ was created to describe him; he knows that’s who he is, and he has no problem with that. Walker is spot on in this role, for his glacial good looks, his sculpted body, which he delights in sharing with us as he spends much of the evening stepping out of showers or into designer clothes from underwear to socks and tie, all combine with his very pleasant, even likable manner so he doesn’t seem monstrous at all. No, the demons within him gnaw at him and he wonders how and why he feels no pain, feels nothing at all.
One would think that a central character with no redeeming inner qualities would not attract an audience sufficiently large to support an expensive Broadway musical. I was reminded of other seriously flawed charmers who’ve inhabited them. Pal Joey was a user, a cad with women, but he earned himself a nightclub in his name, and he survived. His first outing in 1940 turned Gene Kelly, who played him, into a star, but the world wasn’t quite ready for Joey, and he only lasted a season on the main stem. But he was back 10 years later, this time with pint sized Harold Lang wooing and winning the same lady played again by Vivienne Segal. now playing over 500 performances. Harold Hill, the “Music Man” was pretty much a rotter and a con man, one who just found pretending worked better than not. He found redemption though, and won the hand of the girl he met in a tiny town in Iowa. Of course Bonnie and Clyde, who ended their musical riddled with bullets, dead, onstage and at the box office. Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, the demon barber of Fleet Street, has always been welcome on Broadway, and he’s been back several times, always with success.
I think Patrick Bateman will be one of those characters we would hopefully run a mile from were he to cross our paths on this side of the footlights. But up there on stage, with the bright lights blaring, and the black and white scenery and projections dancing along with the marvelous looking men and women gyrating to the heart pulsing techno music of the 1980s, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him and a few of those who ran into him. Unfortunately one man did that when Bateman was wielding a butcher knife. The music, the lights, the projections theatrically captured his high flying life among the big players on Wall Street.
Evelyn, his main squeeze as played by the luscious Helene Yorke, likes playing with fire, and Patrick certainly gives her a run for his money until, in his mind, she misbehaves; then the fire that she craves undoes her.
Jennifer Damiano is the good secretary Jean, who longs for him to notice her, but how fortunate for her that he has no interest. One day she will learn that a serial killer rarely makes good husband material.
Alice Ripley plays several roles, including Bateman’s mother. She has authority and a lovely voice, but there isn’t a great deal for her to do in this one, so we’ll have to accept that the Tony winning Next to Normal star is treading water this season just to keep those stage muscles flexed. The supporting players and the well toned ensemble give life to the Lynne Page choreography which captures the synthetic excitement of the late ’80s.
This is a beautifully crafted example of how gifted writers and directors can transform a successful novel into something seemingly brand new by using what works for them and injecting creative thoughts of their own. In the old days, Benjamin Walker would have been wafted away to a long term contract in Hollywood, where he would have been making love to the likes of Betty Grable at 20th Century Fox or Shirley MacLaine at Paramount. They in turn had been so wafted from DuBarry Was A Lady and The Pajama Game. But that was then, and this is now, so we have every reason to hope Mr. Walker will light up the Broadway sky for many seasons to come.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.