Walking down the stairs and into the underground lounge of Fritzenberger on Petrie Terrace, an audience is transported from ordinary Brisbane to a small, dark, jazzy bar in Sacramento, California. Far removed from the humdrum of everyday life, we become witnesses to a series of events that lead to a horrific murder that sparks just one question: Who dunnit?
Wings Theatre Company’s Once Upon a Time in Sacramento is thrilling. Written by Liam Donnelly and directed by Imogen Hazlehurst, this maiden production is ambitious. The plot is a slice of the lives of the characters that populate the Archive Lounge Bar. In particular, lead singer Veronica Rodgers (Courtney Pennisi) and her intimidating, macho-man husband, Albert Rodgers (Thomas Bishop).
When Robert Avery (Sam Chittenden) arrives at the bar to seek out the biggest talent in Sacramento, none other than the infamous Veronica Rodgers, she is starstruck at the prospect of acting opposite some of the biggest stars. But her husband, Albert, is none too happy with the idea. Albert has many skeletons in his closet, including ex-wife Rita Martense (Caitlyn Schilling) who arrives in town to confront him. The show also includes a few other side stories such as the pianist, Leonard Faravelli’s (Lawson Schafer) infatuation with Veronica, Albert assaulting a waitress, and Rita’s songs being stolen by Albert and given to Veronica.
At times, the plethora of stories creates a busy interwoven performance that makes it difficult to remember exactly who has what grievance with whom which leads to some stories getting lost. Small snippets of life are played out in an hour that ends with an announcement from host, Howard Bradley (Russ Gallagher) that Albert Rodgers has been found murdered. Then follows a very innovative and fresh interactive experience. Characters make their way between tables, interacting with the audience and answering questions about where they were and what they know about the murder. The audience is pulled into the world of the story as they play detective, and this works extremely effectively. Challenging the audience to employ their own intuition and attention to detail to guess the killer, Once Upon a Time in Sacramento really raises the bar for audience participation.
The ambiance in the underground bar is terrific and really builds the world of the story from the very beginning, drawing the audience into the action. The stage design was simple but effective. Occasionally it feels as if the unique space is underutilized and making use of the servicing bar and raised area where some of the audience is seated could provide an opportunity to elevate the performance further to a new level of authenticity and immersion.
Courtney Pennisi’s musical performance shows off an excellent range and is one of the standouts of the show. Her final number absolutely captivates the audience. Pennisi’s emotional rawness sharing a drink with her husband’s ex-wife is poignant and aching. During the interactive portion, Pennisi’s diva-esque brashness is extremely charming and entertaining.
Similarly, Caitlyn Schilling as Rita Martense shows a vast emotional range that feels genuine and unfiltered. Schilling is cold regarding her ex-husband and the small details she reveals about her life during the interactive portion adds a much-needed realness to the “scorned lover” trope. Bravo Brisbane agrees with Rita that death by peanut allergy would have been a more suitable punishment for Albert than a gunshot.
Sam Chittenden’s performance of Robert Avery is very intriguing, his presence demands immediate attention, even as he loiters in the background. This occasionally detracts from subtle plot points and leads to the audience missing the moment Veronica Rodgers pulls a knife on him. But after a few beats, the audience catches on. Chittenden’s conflict with Thomas Bishop’s Albert is commendable as the two go toe-to-toe when their equally commanding characters clash. Bishop’s aggression and shadiness makes Albert a truly loathsome character and one of the standout performances.
As Howard Bradley, Russ Gallagher’s comedic timing is excellent and he is truly in his element during the interactive performance. Chloe Boike’s authentic American accent as Jessica Coburn is another standout of the show. Daniel Dosek as Richie Ainsley and Lawson Schafer as Leonard Faravelli round out the world of the show in skilled performances. A little bit more attention to the motivations and backstories of these two characters could go a long way to elevate the show.
Interestingly, Once Upon a Time in Sacramento includes a suspect list in their program with points awarded to each suspect based on their shady pasts. This is a wonderfully innovative touch. A little bit more incorporation of the points listed in the program into the performance would add an additional layer of complexity for some of the characters in the show.
Donnelly and Hazlehurst create an intriguing performance that builds the world of the story and experiments with interactivity and audience participation in a fresh way. Donnelly is undeniably creative in his script writing and ideas. Some additional development of the alternative storylines would push the production to a whole new level of complexity and authenticity.
This new refreshing execution of a staged production broken up by an interactive performance is to be applauded. Bravo Brisbane can’t wait to see what else Wings Theatre Company will be producing in the future.
You can catch Once Upon a Time in Sacramento at the The Malecón – Cuban Rum Bar on Tuesday 13 April 2021. Tickets are on sale now through https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing?embed&eid=718391