The Dentist's Chair
26/08/2008 - 30/08/2008
06/03/2008 - 16/03/2008
10/09/2008 - 27/09/2009
[Updated August 2008]
"A dark comedy with real teeth" – Dominion Post
Following a sell out season at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in February, Indian Ink Theatre Company announces its Wellington and Auckland seasons of its deliciously dark comedy The Dentist’s Chair.
Written by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis and featuring a stellar cast and live band, The Dentist’s Chair is at The Opera House, Wellington from August 26-30, then heads to Auckland for a season at SKYCITY Theatre from 10-27 September.
The Dentist’s Chair is the eagerly anticipated fourth production by multiple award -winning Indian Ink Theatre Company, who are best known as the creators of the trilogy of plays, Krishnan’s Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King.
Provoked by the notion that ‘life makes cowards of us all’ The Dentist’s Chair is set in that most terrifying of locations – the dentist’s chair.
Albert is a dentist with a gift for easing others’ pain – but not his own. His long neglected passions are inflamed by a delicate operation on a young woman. In the process of straightening Ruth’s teeth will Albert straighten out his life? To complicate matters Albert is haunted by the ghost of William Kemmler, the first person to be executed in the electric chair – and who is encouraging him to make a rather personal extraction.
The Dentist’s Chair premiered at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in February, captivating audiences and selling out.
"We know there were people who missed out on seeing the play at the festival, so we’re returning to Wellington for them," producer and writer Justin Lewis says.
The Dentist’s Chair features a superb cast with award-winning actor Mia Blake (No 2, The Tatooist) as Ruth, and husband and wife Carl Bland and Peta Rutter (both 2007 Chapman Tripp Award Winners) playing husband and wife Albert and Judy.
Mia, Carl and Peta are joined by Gareth Williams as the menacing Kemmler with the lanky limbs and the haunting singing voice. Fresh out of drama school this is Gareth’s first major professional outing. "Williams is superb"- Dominion Post
The Dentist’s Chair features a live band, led by David Ward (Krishnan’s Dairy and The Candlestickmaker) with Isaac Smith on double bass. The music is an inspired mix of folk and blues composed by David Ward.
"Marvelously gritty songs" – Dominion Post
The Dentist’s Chair was created with generous support from Creative New Zealand and co-commissioned by the New Zealand International Arts Festival.
The Dentist’s Chair is at:
The Opera House, Wellington from 26-30 August, 8pm except Thurs 28 @ 6.30
SKYCITY Theatre, Auckland from 10-27 September, Mon-Tue, 6.30; Wed-Sat, 8pm.
Book at Ticketek on 0800 TICKETEK (842 538) or online at www.ticketek.co.nz
Jacob Rajan - Albert Southwick
Peta Rutter - Judy Southwick
Mia Blake - Daisy
Gareth Williams - William Kemmler / Lead vocals
David Ward - Composer, Musician
Issac Smith - Musician
John Verryt (Set Designer)
Jeremy Fern (Lighting Designer)
Simon Barker (Video Designer)
Murray Edmond (Dramaturg)
RETURN SEASON CREDITS:
Carl Bland - Albert Southwick
Peta Rutter - Judy Southwick
Mia Blake - Ruth, Tilly
Gareth Williams - William Kemmler
David Ward - Banjos , slide guitar, assorted instruments
Isaac Smith -Double bass, clarinet, assorted instruments
Lyrics - Jacob Rajan, Justin Lewis and Murray Edmond
'Long Journey' - traditional song arranged by David Ward
Dramaturge - Murray Edmond
Set and costume Design - John Verryt
Ligthing design - Jeremy Fern
Video design - Simon Barker
Producer - Justin Lewis
Assistant Producers - Johanna Smith, Angela Green
Production Management - Jeremy Fern
Stage manager - Janina Panizza
Technical Manager and Operator - Sean Lynch
Set Construction - Set Scenarios.
Costume Construction - Fiona Nichol
Prop Construction- BeCreative - Becks Ehlers
Photography - John Mc Dermott, Joanna Forsberg
Publicity Sally Woodfield - SWPR
Marketing Strategy Arne Herrmann - Spike Marketing
Marketing Support - Sally Woodfield - SWPR
Fundraising - Margaret Belich
Unmasking a darker, stranger Indian Ink production
Review by Shannon Huse 16th Sep 2008
The Indian Ink theatre company has changed its recipe so fans expecting the latest production to be a sweet, soulful curry of a show will instead be surprised by a swampy, macabre gumbo.
The Dentist Chair (SkyCity Theatre until September 27) is the company’s fourth show and is very different from those which have gone before. It’s an ensemble piece with normally solo actor Jacob Rajan being joined by three other actors and two musicians. The masks are gone and so are the infusions of Indian culture which offered a rich extra element to the shows. [More]
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Dare to confront what you fear the most
Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 14th Sep 2008
Soon after the house opens, an unannounced, unassuming bluegrass duo, who could’ve come straight from recording Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, begin to play. Featuring J.J.Cale-like crooning from composer/banjo/slide guitar player David Ward, ably accompanied by the small in stature but hugely talented Isaac Smith on double bass/clarinet player, Ward & Smith quickly win over crowd. They look and sound relaxed, and toes are soon taping throughout the capacity audience.
The upbeat, lively mood is interrupted as The Dentist’s Chair begins with a bawdy 19th century music-hall-like prologue, performed with gusto by Mia Blake & Gareth Williams, portraying a couple of peddlers, Tilly & William Kemmler. He rants on Darwinism and the bible, she jokes about melons and monkeys, but their act comes to an unexpected violent close.
We then jump forward in time, and arrive at dentist Albert Southwick’s surgery, and soon learn that there is a connection between Southwick and Kemmler, causing, in part, the demons in our dentist’s head. He grapples with events from his past, which haunt him to the point that he no longer engages with the outside world.
To add to his burden, he suspects his wife Judy, (played by a drop dead gorgeous Peta Rutter), is about to leave him for a former lover. Completing the surgery’s dysfunction, is their cleaner Ruth, a lonely charity case picked up by Judy, who has the world’s most ugly set of teeth, and has been abandoned by her church having been labelled a witch. Ruth decides that it is God’s will that she has a stake in the outcome of this crumbling marriage.
While this quick summary may sound a bit random, in the hands of Indian Ink writers Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis (also director), plus dramaturge Murray Edmond, what unfolds is a story of fear, hope, trust and love, that fuses these broken souls in the most unlikely way. While I found Ruth’s character and perspective harder to engage and empathise with, for the most part I found the script intriguing, confrontational and fresh.
The cast assembled by Lewis is without exception, excellent.
Gareth William is not only menacing and disturbed as Kemmler, he sings with feeling. In particular, during "Welcome To The Murder House", his ability to reveal, emote and move, using his tender small but perfectly formed vocals, is a treat.
Jacob Rajan shows what a fine actor he is, as Southwick segues easily from his jolly professional façade, chatting happily to one faceless patient to the next, to his private emptiness, as he grapples with damage, angst and pain.
As his ultra-organised, vivacious wife, Peta Rutter lights up the stage at every opportunity.
Ruth is a strange and complicated young woman, but Mia Blake enjoys her mischievous side in particular, and also does a star turn as the blonde bombshell Tilly at the top of the night.
Technically, The Dentist’s Chair is an impressive mix of organic theatrical devices such as using Smith’s clarinet as the phone ring, through to precise video imagery to show what’s going on inside a patient’s head. Full credit to technical manager & operator Sean Lynch, and production manager Jeremy Fern, for choosing the right equipment & team, to ensure everything looks and sounds fantastic, and flows so smoothly on the night.
John Verryt’s set includes a natty variation on revolving doors, ingenious use of Skycity Theatre’s mechanist bars to evoke a surgery-like environment, and humorous dental accessories which no doubt take inspiration from how large & dangerous they appear from the patient’s perspective, compared to any instrument of reality.
Lighting designer Jeremy Fern illuminates Verryt’s design well, plus throws the musicians into exquisite pale light. Fern also uses shadow & colour to good effect, as Albert becomes increasingly affected by William Kemmler’s haunting visits. And of course, he reserves the brightest white light for the dentist’s chair.
After a lot of thoroughly entertaining black comedy, there is a poignant moment near the end of the play which genuinely moves me, and exemplifies to perfection what Indian Ink do best: creative story-telling, using their trade-mark commedia theatrical devices and intuitive scripting, to make a unique well-crafted evening of theatre that is as enjoyable in the moment, as it is holistically affecting.
The Dentist’s Chair left me feeling that if you dare to confront what you fear the most, you might just find what you thought you’d lost.
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A bad case of underbite
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Aug 2008
The Dentist’s Chair, first seen at Soundings Theatre for the Arts Festival in March, was described as a comedy with bite. The re-jigged version that opened on Tuesday at the Opera House is still described as a comedy with bite but it might be more accurate to call it now a bite made with ill-fitting false teeth.
Only occasionally in the ponderous first half does the dark humour of this tale of dentist Albert Southwick, whose American namesake ( also a dentist) invented the electric chair in the 1880s, make some sort of contact with the seemingly stunned opening night audience across the footlights of the Opera House.
Poor Albert has lost the will to live. He is unable to cope with his guilt and despair over an accident in his past, his wife is having an affair, he is attracted to a young woman (Mia Blake) who hasn’t a tooth in the right place in her mouth, and he is being haunted by the ghost of William Kemmler, who, in 1890, was the first man to be executed in an electric chair.
After the interval some pep is put into the proceedings when a vaudevillian double act (it started the show in a slightly longer version at the Soundings Theatre) of William Kemmler and his wife (Mia Blake) sing a Southern hillbilly song before William commits the crime that caused him to end up in the electric chair. Then we are back to Albert and his problems which are eventually resolved in an ending that strives for a touching poetic effect.
The Opera House is not as intimate as Soundings Theatre and some of the dark comedy is lost which is compounded by the lack of projection – as well as energy – by all of the cast some of the time. But there are also some odd details that I either didn’t notice or were not there in March or I ignored because I was carried along by the verve of the production.
Carl Bland, who replaces Jacob Rajan in the role, is Albert and Peta Rutter is his wife Judy and both wear half-masks but one wonders why when none of the other characters do. Peta Rutter seems unable to stand on two straight legs and Gareth Williams who was so glitteringly sinister when he sang Welcome to the Murder House during the Festival season seemed to be holding himself back, though his Southern accent, his hillbilly talk and his singing are still the best things in the show and he would be perfect for the role of an other murderer: John Wilkes Booth in Sondheim’s Assassins.
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Rich in insight, humour and theatrical skill – but …
Review by John Smythe 27th Aug 2008
“Where’s your clarity?” the ghost of William Kemmler keeps asking Albert Southwick, a depressed and reclusive dentist. The same question has driven the further development of The Dentist’s Chair, following its premiere at this year’s NZ International Arts Festival (see links below to earlier reviews). So let me attempt some clarity on what exactly this play is about.
Using the conventions of commedia mask (achieving comedy by magnifying and distilling the essence of each character’s in-the-moment truth), The Dentist’s Chair is a theatrical essay on the theme of fear and how it can pervert the passion of love into murderous intent.
Kemmler, who murdered his common law wife Tilly in a jealous rage, was the first person to be executed by electric chair (invented by American dentist Alfred P Southwick) on August 6 1890. Kemmler is haunting Albert Southwick (no relation) because Albert has been riddled with fears and self-loathing since his own dentist’s chair became the setting for a tragic accidental death.
Despite his lack of interest in revitalising their flagging business with cosmetic dentistry, and his deepening depressive state – manifest in his agoraphobic fear of the outside world and of the newspapers which attempt to infest his sanctuary with even more bad news – Albert’s assistant and business manager wife, Judy, has remained loyal. Or has she?
Abetted by the observations of their buck-toothed cleaner Ruth, a refugee from a Christian sect where men have blamed her for tempting them, evidence appears to accumulate against Judy. And in the process feelings grow between Albert and Ruth …
In asking “Where’s your clarity?” Kemmler’s quest is to convince Albert that murder motivated by jealousy can be an act of pure love. Eventually, provoked by colliding emotions and thus alive with passion – against Judy? for Ruth? – Albert converts his chair into the intended murder weapon …
All this, building to a tooth-grinding climax, is expertly executed by the cast of four plus two multi-skilled musicians – who double as box-headed dental patients – guided by director Justin Lewis.
Carl Bland (replacing Jacob Rajan, as always planned) makes Albert compelling despite the character’s guilt-laden, fear-burdened, lack-lustre approach to life for most of the play. That’s quite a challenge in commedia terms. Wearing his excellent half mask like a second skin, his frozen moments, lost in a void of dismay and despair, are very effective in the first three quarters of the play. Even so, I’m not sure the script, production and Bland himself couldn’t go further in probing the full range of Albert’s deeper emotions, as brief breakouts, perhaps, from his otherwise shut-down state of being.
Happily Peta Rutter has exchanged her bland (no relation) mask for a much more expressive one. Her physicality embodies her states of being from the tips of her curled-up toes to her often startled eyes. Although her voice doesn’t have the same range, her ability to win our empathy despite her cruel treatment of Ruth proves she has made us believe in her, flaws and all.
Building on her superb debut performance, Mia Blake is even more disturbingly splendid as Ruth, the rueful yet ruthless quester for love. With face-distorting teeth as her only ‘mask’ she marks her moments with alacrity, taking us right to the centre of her being and provoking laughs through the shock of recognition, not least at our own capacity to think and feel as she does.
Blake’s soulful singing is a delight. She also plays Tilly, the pregnant and ever-loving fruit vendor, with great winning gusto in the flashback sequence that now opens the second half (it used to be a prologue to the whole show and placed here it has more meaning and impact).
Also a wonderful singer, Gareth Williams is still awfully compelling as the evil genius Kemmler, his bloodless skin as white as his soul is dark; utterly amoral in his perverted beyond-the-grave perspectives.
Composer David Ward and Isaac Smith’s idiosyncratic musicianship adds a great soundtrack, punctuating key actions and moments as well as accompanying the mostly haunting songs, with lyrics by Jacob Rajan, Justin Lewis and dramaturg Murray Edmond.
But … there is still a but … There’s a lack of clarity in, or emotional connection with, how the story ends. Without giving the show away, through a sudden twist of fortune – or rather a realisation of what’s really been going on – the final focus is on the ultimate fear, of death, and how love can help us confront it. Somehow it seems like a tacked on device, perhaps because it has not been well enough seeded and also because the sudden change in the emotional landscape is not given its due in time and space. Dramatically it requires more than an abstract epilogue.
The blue butterfly, with all its implications concerning the love Albert and Judy once shared, is an excellent visual device. But the way it works at the moment, our connection with it is too intellectual to deliver a satisfying denouement. It is no substitute for sharing the experience of recovered love and the letting go of fear in the face of loss and death.
There has been a lot of talk, and questioning, of God throughout the play – by everyone except Judy, as it happened – and clearly apprehensions of death are inextricably tied up in that. As writers, Rajan and Lewis have set up an exploration and confrontation of the biggest issues of all: fear, love, sex, death and God. Having set themselves a hugely challenging obstacle course, it feels to me as if they’ve side-stepped the final hurdle.
That said, the journey up to this point is rich in insight, humour and theatrical skill. The Dentist’s Chair aims high in its aspirations and deserves good houses now as much as it deserves to finally fulfil its extraordinary potential.
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Not there yet but worth persevering
Review by Lynn Freeman 12th Mar 2008
Indian Ink Theatre Company has earned through hard work and the excellence of its productions, a strong reputation and a large and devoted audience. They take a long time to develop a work and they are thoroughly professional and devoted to their task.
This needs to be said up front because they have poured their hearts and souls into The Dentist’s Chair. The programme tells us it has been a struggle along the way. Sadly, that struggle is not yet over. As it stands, this production is unconvincing and the love story too deeply buried to make us care about these characters.
Albert, the dentist, is haunted by an event from his past and by the ghost of the first man to die in the electric chair, which was created for humane reasons by a dentist. Albert (Jacon Rajan) can’t leave his home-cum-dental surgery but then has suspicions that his wife of 20+ years is having an affair.
Things go from bad to worse, as the ghost and Albert’s young cleaner Ruth (Mia Blake) encourage him to seek revenge on his wife. There is a live band as part of the action though the songs detract rather than add to the one stage action.
How could it be an Indian Ink production without masks, though here they’re only on the wife (Peta Rutter) and a nose and eyebrows only for Albert, and a mouthful of teeth for Ruth. It rains when things go badly, apples plucked from Albert’s chest represent his heart, these metaphors are far less subtle than in other productions.
There is clearly something very worthwhile at the heart of this play, worth persevering with.
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Applaudable vision and values
Review by John Smythe 07th Mar 2008
Fear and love are the primary emotions. A great deal of personal and political action is provoked by fear and carried out in the name of – or in the quest for – ‘love’. Indeed the desire to earn the ‘love’ of ‘God’ drives countless acts of terrorism and the consequent ‘War on Terror’.
And we all have own little wars on terror, epitomised by such universal fears as going to the dentist – a.k.a. ‘the murder house’. Hence The Dentist’s Chair: big themes contained in the lives, loves and fear of those who inhabit the humdrum dental surgery of Albert Southwick, whose unrelated namesake invented the electric chair.
Albert (Jacob Rajan) shares his physical world with Judy (Peta Rutter), who is his wife/ business manager/ receptionist/ assistant, and Ruth (Mia Blake), a buck-toothed refugee from a strict religious upbringing ‘saved’ from the streets by Judy to do the menial work. Occasional patients in the less-than-thriving business are played – with cardboard boxes for heads – by musicians Isaac Smith (double bass, clarinet, tea-chest & battered cymbal percussion) and Dave Ward (banjos, slide guitar – and the play’s composer).
Also part of the action is William Kemmler (Gareth Williams), the first man to be executed in Southwick’s electric chair (in 1890), for murdering his philandering common law wife Tilly (Mia Blake). That fraught relationship and her murder – a powerful moment involving a melon – open the show as a comic, then shocking, theme-setting prologue: Kemmler claims his violent act showed how much he loved her. The prologue also establishes a haunting banjo-led strain of music and songs, redolent of O Brother Where Art Thou.
When Albert – who is overwhelmed at times by the content of the daily news – begins to fear his wife is being unfaithful, Kemmler becomes an insidious presence. And so, surprisingly, does Ruth. In fact her vacillation between poor little victim and ruthless abuser of ‘God’-given ‘justice’ is the most interesting part of the play for me, not least because it seems to distil the central theme most potently.
The scenario that unfolds is well crafted to engage our empathy and make us confront our own ways of dealing with fear – not least the fear of confronting the truth, especially concerning death. While I can’t give more of the show away here, I can say I thought I could see where the story was heading by interval and I was wrong: the second half delivers twists and surprises that have been subtly seeded in the first without being signalled.
Pursuit of ‘the serious laugh’ (succulent morsels of substance are dropped in while our mouths are open) remains fundamental to the The Dentist’s Chair but it is not as exotic as the wondrous Indian Ink trilogy Krishnan’s Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King. There are no Indian accents, settings or fabrics; Jacob Rajan does not deliver a virtuoso display of mask work and commedia characterisation.
Perhaps the rather subdued response of the opening night audience, in the first half at least, arose from our having preconceptions and expectations that were not immediately fulfilled. If so, we brought that on ourselves. Even so, there is work to be done.
Jacob Rajan’s Albert – whose mask is a large hook nose and bushy eyebrows – is one of the elements that has yet to ‘take off’ in this production. Strangely padded in the torso region – which limits his capacity for physical expression – he is clearly weighed down by a middle-aged malaise. This turns out to be caused by a tragedy that occurred in his chair ten years ago. People trusted him and this awful thing happened. The immediate repercussions are not detailed but presumably he was exonerated of blame, and it weighs on him nevertheless.
Before these details emerge, however, we are treated to broadly comic dentistry sequences involving carpentry tools that seem out of kilter with the established tone and their more subtle uses of commedia devices. It comes over as retro, as old time vaudeville; try-hard, even. Only when I think it through do I realise this imagery may be born of Albert’s self-loathing; of his morbid fear of being feared. If so, that needs to be something we get at the time.
Peta Rutter’s Judy is almost naturalistic, to the point where it’s hard to see why she is endowed with the one conventional commedia half-mask. While she makes it hers and uses it well, the character is rather bland and not enough of a contrast or challenge to Albert. My feeling is she needs more energy and purpose, building on her social conscience and desire to do good works, perhaps. And if that means making a whole new mask, so be it.
Mia Blake’s ‘masks’ are sets of teeth: crooked and rotten ones for Tilly; buck and gapped for Ruth. She makes them work a treat, finding a full range of emotions in Ruth that imbue her whole body and vocal range in an exemplary ‘less is more’ performance.
Gareth Williams wears no mask at all as William Kemmler, although his bloodless face and staring eyes are close to being a death mask. This, too, is an impeccably selective minimalist performance of needle-sharp intensity. And his singing voice is truly haunting.
The music is excellent, both in conception and execution. John Verryt’s modular set – large dark wood doorway and matching window frame, evoking an old city building – backed by rain-streaming translucent plastic, and lit by Jeremy Fern with video design elements from Simon Barker, works very well
Perhaps it is the distilled clarity of the contradictory dualities in Kemmler and Ruth that make their characters so successful. The work to be done on the others may include similar simplification and amplification. Some plot elements need refining and/or refocusing too. e.g. Judy’s demand that they go to a cosmetic dentistry seminar, which doesn’t happen even though he does do orthodontic work on Ruth’s teeth. And the revelation of Ruth’s connection to the decade-old tragedy seems both contrived and unnecessary to me. In fact I am not even sure that haunting tragedy is needed, or maybe it has yet to fully earn its keep.
That said, a full house* strongly affirmed the world premiere by demanding many curtain calls, and more than one said in my hearing how good it was to see a work of real rigour and substance. I whole-heartedly applaud the vision and values behind The Dentist’s Chair and look forward to its next incarnation.
*As is often the case on Festival opening nights there were some empty seats in prime locations. I assume these were comps given to sponsors and/or other important people. Some strategy really must be put in place to ensure such bookings are confirmed so that unused seats can be resold – especially when a season is sold out, as this one is.
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Dark humour with real teeth
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Mar 2008
Indian Ink Theatre Company doesn’t rest on its laurels. Its latest and long-awaited play begins with a vaudevillian double-act with a song and some crude jokes about melons and bananas that acts as a prologue which foreshadows not only the plot to come but also the sudden switches from humour to something dark and scary that Stephen Sondheim might be proud of.
We learn later that the man is William Kemmier, who was the first man in the United States to be executed by the electric chair for murdering his wife. The chair was invented by a dentist called Albert Southwick.
There’s another dentist in another place and time also called Albert Southwick who is troubled with guilt from a tragic accident in his past and by his wife Judy’s affair with an old flame. Not only is he haunted by the terrors of the modern world, from which God has excused himself, he is also haunted by the lively presence of the ghost of William Kemmier.
His life is changed when he and Judy hire a cleaner, Ruth, with very bad teeth. Dental problems aside, Ruth has had trouble with her church, which called her a witch and excommunicated her. She believes God has guided her to Albert Southwick for a purpose, but the end result is to release passions among all the characters that seem uncontrollable.
This may make it all sound very gloomy, but in fact the complex twists and turns of the story, which are littered with biblical references (a snake, apples, guilt, punishment, and rain), are played out in a heightened theatrical style of masks, songs and nightmare-sized dental equipment that is able to switch from humour to darkness with ease.
It is all carried off with a smooth professionalism that is readily evident in John Verryt’s startling setting of solid scenery mixed with translucent plastic screens, David Ward’s marvelously gritty songs and the musicianship of David Ward and Isaac Smith who also play dental patients.
Southwick is played by Jacob Rajan with Chaplinesque pathos as he finds the courage in the end to carry on living and chasing butterflies. Ruth is played by Mia Blake as a repressed young woman who will inevitably explode and Peta Rutter is both sharp and vulnerable as Judy.
Gareth Williams is superb as Kemmier. His sings with real panache and force and he lifts every scene he appears in. When he sings Welcome to the Murder House something sinister invades the theatre.
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