Just as a rose by another name would smell as sweet, a couple’s emotional argument, while witty of word, is still confronting when set to song. This is one of many realisations that lie at the heart of “Subtext: Love Between The Lines”, a completely unique and absolutely wonderful intimate musical theatre experience.
The show is a promenade performance and, in this instance, the audience travels around a picturesque garden and veranda of a lovingly lit private house setting. The action doesn’t stop between song sets as the performers (singers Craig Atkinson and Melissa Western) take audiences on the journey of their initial meeting, courtship banter, marriage and search for self. It is a simple enough story of ordinary people, Him and Her, yet every encounter is revealing of something about life, thanks to the range of songs have been carefully selected to depict the intimate moments and challenges of the couple’s relationship over a period of years.
There is a clear Stephen Sondheim sound and sensibility to the show (#inagoodway). Like Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little”, whose title song actually features, “Subtext: Love Between The Lines”, has a dialogue-free plot. The songs, although often of more obscure musical origin, are perfectly chosen to weave together to become the tapestry of this creatively staged and utterly credible suburban narrative. And pianist Sue Porter provides perfect accompaniment to the singers.
From the bouncy ‘Coffee in a Cardboard Cup’ from “70, Girls, 70” to the cheeky ‘Tennis Song’ from “City of Angels the Musical” there is much humour to the show’s earlier, predominantly courtship scenes, particularly during the aforementioned fight (with rhythm imaginatively created through the sound of knife in action on a chopping board), which the audience watches through open kitchen window.
Atkinson and Western create characters that are multi-layered and intriguing, not just through their vocal inflection but emphasised also through the important little details of sideways looks and body language. Indeed, a lot of the laughs come not only from the lyrics themselves, but the duo’s delivery of them with use of pace, pause and emphasis for comic effect.
There are many people who have good voices but very few who are good singers. Atkinson and Western are both good singers and when harmonised together, their sound reaches out and grabs the audience with performances that strike a chord with our hearts. From their opening ponderment of ‘Where do you start?’ (asking how you separate the present from the past) to their final, familiar ‘Somewhere’ realisation that there is a place and time ‘for us’ living and forgiving, they have the audience entranced.
Atkinson’s voice, in particular, sours to operatic heights (a testament to his ‘The Ten Tenors’ pedigree) in his solo numbers such as ‘Sorry Grateful’ from “Company”. As he contemplates the dilemma of everything being different despite nothing changing, his delivery is poignant, tender and moving. And his longing given time apart is made achingly apparent in ‘I’d give it all for you”.
Painted on the wall of the music room that serves as one of the show’s locations is the quote ‘Music is what feelings sound like.’ And there is perhaps no better way to sum up both the intent and effect of this show, emphasised by the fact that upon conclusion, everyone was talking not about what they thought, so much as how they felt. “Subtext: Love Between The Lines” is an incredible, beautiful spectacle of song. It is just a shame that its ATF season was so short.
This review is based on the reviewer’s experience of the closing night performance on May 10.