Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Music and Lyrics by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Rupert Goold; Choreographed by Lynne Page
Broadway, New Musical
Open Ended Run
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street
by Weston Clay on 4.21.16
Morgan Weed (center left) and Helene York (center right) in American Psycho: The Musical. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
BOTTOM LINE: A Broadway musical adaptation of the infamous novel that starts with a spectacular bang, but doesn't quite slay.
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a novel that has been on a long and strange journey before arriving on Broadway this spring. The book was dropped by its original publisher and protested vehemently for its painstakingly detailed passages of violence before it even came out in 1991. The 2000 film version, starring Christian Bale, fared pretty well as a cult classic that captured the novel’s depiction of a menacingly extravagant Wall Street culture in the format of a sexy and bloody movie thriller. The Broadway stage, though, is a new stretch from the source material and I, for one, feel like “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life” (to borrow lyrics from the show, which are borrowed from Phil Collins).
Amidst a national conversation about the toll Wall Street has taken on American values and the economy, it seems like a ripe time to rehash American Psycho which, through its antihero Patrick Bateman, more than suggests that our culture’s focus on wealth and materialism has stripped us of our humanity. The murders Bateman commits feel no different to him than his morning routine of skin and hair products, his impeccable wardrobe of designer clothes, and his money-flaunting dinners at the most exclusive and conceptual Manhattan restaurants. When you have as much money as he does, everything is consumable, expendable, and replaceable—including people.
American Psycho: The Musical opens with Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fame), wearing nothing but a pair of white underwear, the body he self-describes as “ripped” on display for all and, the night I saw the show, a telling nervous chuckle spread through the audience, which I took as a good sign. Walker then begins to describe his morning routine, which bleeds (pun intended) into the first musical number. “Selling Out” positions Walker as a sort of pop star, showering the audience with money as he sings about how his endless desire for material wealth is the center of his world.
The first act is, in a sense, a romp through this world of products and clothes and devices—all the things that one simply must have to compete. Like the novel, plot is an afterthought (and we see later why this is a good thing). In “Cards,” Bateman and his finance colleagues, who are also the closest thing he has to friends, compare business cards. With a chorus of “oh, baby baby, you’re such a card,” it’s clear that these men have more than a little admiration for the power these printed rectangles of paper possess and more than a little resentment for anyone with a sexier business card than his own.
Even better is “You Are What You Wear,” in which Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn (Helene York) and her friend Courtney (Morgan Weed) get hot and bothered over high-concept food and designer clothes in by far my favorite moment of Duncan Sheik’s overall strong songwriting and Lynne Page’s often strange choreography. Like “Cards,” “You Are What You Wear” shows that these characters reserve their strongest attachments for products, but it also sounds like a radio-ready pop song (especially the version on the show’s website of Sheik singing it himself), while Page’s choreography draws on classic fashion shoot poses which oscillate between true elegance and a mannequinish vulgarity, elevating the number practically to a gasping orgasm. Here, and a bit later on in "Mistletoe Alert," York and Weed and their chorus of dancers prove that American Psycho: The Musical is at its best when exaggeration and caricature are at the forefront (which happen to be two characteristics that the novel and the musical theater format innately share).
It is the lack of exaggeration and caricature that make the front man, unfortunately, less fun to watch. Walker makes a habit of stopping short of fully living in Bateman’s deranged mind, opting instead to make Bateman more of a trapped and misunderstood victim than the psychopathic monster we are all expecting to see. Whether this was the result of timid acting or restrained directing (perhaps Rupert Goold doesn’t actually want to scare his mainstream commercial audience) wasn’t entirely clear and, to be fair, I saw the show early in previews and it is possible that Bateman is a character that it takes more than a little time to get comfortable with. Still, it is never a good thing when the lead actor is outshined by almost everyone around him. The second act is a bit of a snooze, then, as the show zeros in on Bateman and attempts to resolve a handful of plot lines in a series of scenes, each of which feels like the end of the show, but turns out to not be. A few strong songs thrown in there ("Nice Thought" sung by Alice Ripley and Jennifer Damiano and Damiano's solo "A Girl Before") help stave off the sense that we're watching a musical's dying gasps.
Still, there’s a lot to praise here. The designers could hardly have done a better job. Es Devlin’s set is a sleek marvel of moving parts that transforms seamlessly from Bateman’s posh Upper West Side apartment, to his Wall Street office, to a dark and expansive nightclub that feels like it pushes endlessly beyond the stage in every direction. A giant Plexiglas scrim plays a brilliant role in the knockout finale to the first act (if you’ve seen the film, recall the scene with Patrick in a raincoat, which is impeccably translated to the stage and deliciously fulfills the audience’s desire for stage gore). Katrina Lindsay’s costumes, clearly of utmost importance, are excellent replicas of late 80’s high fashion. Justin Townsend’s lighting effects and fog machines are imperative to the moodiness, but Finn Ross's projection effects often detract more from the spectacle than they add.
Converting such a crazy, confounding and notorious novel into a Broadway show is no easy task and the results here are applaudable but inconsistent. At its worst, the show is muddy and plodding as Walker, shirtless and covered in stage blood, trying in vain to unlock and justify his character's crazy mind. But at its best, American Psycho is a high energy, top-of-the-line visual spectacle with catchy songs and strangely mesmerizing choreography. At the end of it all, Patrick Bateman explains to us that he has no clear sense of self. I’d say the same about the show he lives in, but still I somehow find myself wanting to see it again. The second time through, though, leaving at intermission won't be out of the question.
(American Psycho: The Musical plays at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, in an open ended run. The running time is two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. Tickets are $69-$250 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more information visit americanpsychothemusical.com.)
American Pyscho: The Musical is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik, based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis. Directed by Rupert Goold. Choreography is by Lynne Page. Set Design is by Es Devlin. Lighting Design is by Justin Townsend. Sound Design is by Dan Moses Shreier. Video Design is by Finn Ross.
The cast is Benjamin Walker, Helene York, Jennifer Damiano, Drew Moerlein, Krystina Alabado, Dave Thomas Brown, Jordan Dean, Anna Eilinsfeld, Jason Hite, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Keith Randolph Smith, Theo Stockman, Alex Michael Stoll, Morgan Weed, Brandon Kalm, Sydney Morton, Anthony Sagaria, Neka Zang, and Alice Ripley.