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Review: Holt! The Musical

An ambitious, well-performed show that leaves its central questions unanswered

Harold Holt played by Fred Pryce stands in centre of group of supporting cast, who listen to him explaining currency decimalisation Fred Pryce laws down the law on dollars and cents in 'The Man who Introduced the Decimal Dollar'

“Who was Harold Holt?”. That’s the question Holt! The Musical poses to its audience. The show bills itself as going beyond the conspiracy theories, instead promising to unravel the national enigma and his legacy. How should we remember this tragic, yet faintly ridiculous, PM? Is there more to him than his mysterious death? Does he in fact live at the bottom of the sea in a free-market aquatic utopia?

The show has few answers to these questions. It is hilarious, shambolic musical theatre, excellently sung and well acted.  But, when it comes to Holt himself,  its point is unclear: biography needs to take a position on its biographee, and so does comedic biography, if it is  to be more than a variety show.

Holt! is at its strongest when it uses its protagonist to satirise this particularly flaccid period of our history. In the first act Holt, played by Fred Pryce, is a kind of anti-Hamilton. Hamilton, a migrant, wins respect in an all-American tale of intelligence and hard work. Holt, is swaddled in privilege, a talentless tailcoat rider. Hamilton shapes a nascent democracy; Holt’s biggest political achievement is to decimalise the currency while spilling conscripts’ blood in Vietnam.  Holt’s character is an emblem of the cultural cringe turned political — our embarrassment over a particularly white, particularly cruel, particularly uninspiring brand of post-war politics.

The satire reaches full flight with a series of excellent musical numbers. The standout is ‘The man who introduced the decimal dollar.’ The number, which parodies Lin-Manuel Miranda, has Holt give a rap-explainer of his signature policy after trying to explain our  pre-decimal currency to school children. The hip-hop choreography is energetic, with enough beat that even shillings start to seem cool. And that’s the point: forget Lexington, forget 1776 — after 17 years of one-party rule, changing the currency was about as revolutionary as it got.

The scenes that aren’t actually relevant to Holt and his era, but just develop generic political commentary, are less compelling. Captain James Fell, a British naval officer played by Lyndon Carney, is a send up of all things white and imperial. Though flawlessly delivered in a Nigel Thornberry accent, Fell’s quips — which are basically all about killing people of colour — quickly grow tired. Nothing in Holt’s life story or the nitty-gritty of his political career requires Fell, and the book strains to make room for him.

Not all of Holt! is political satire, though. The show explores Holt’s inner mind, and it’s here that the protagonist’s characterisation becomes confused. Part of the problem is that Holt’s psychological torment — his controlling mother, his self-doubt — just doesn’t receive enough stage time to feel genuine. It doesn’t help either that most of the trauma in Holt’s life, like his father running away to join the circus, is hammed up to the point of absurdity. Unlike in Keating! or Hamilton!, where a real, engaging human emerges from behind the political figure, Holt never moves past caricature, even when we peer into his private life. And in those rare moments where Holt displays serious sensitivity, it’s too much to demand empathy from an audience accustomed to laughing at him.

That said, two of the show’s best songs emerge from its more reflective side. After uncovering her husband’s infidelity, Zara Holt, played by Jacinta Gregory, sings a reconciliation song clearly inspired by ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’, Eliza’s Act II number in Hamilton. The instrumental line is mellow, showcasing the excellent strings and woodwind, and Gregory’s rendition is raw. Even more impressive is Christie New’s brief performance as Holt’s mother at the start of Act I; her solo, a premonitory warning against ocean bathing, makes full use of her formidable vocals.  

What sense of direction there was in Act I is lost in Act II.  By Act II, the show has already hit its high point: Holt has disappeared into the blue and our loins are still tingling after a sleaze-number from Tom Waddel’s LBJ.  At this point, the musical breaks into an  absurd mashup of the Lion King, crime noir, Game of Thrones and The Matrix.: The dialogue abandons satire to rely on non sequitur. The musical numbers, which become more frequent, seem less and less relevant to the actual plot. Holt himself appears in only the first and last two scenes of the Act, just in time for the utterly absurd ending.

Holt! is a show backed by genuine talent: its cast is excellent, with good singing and even better dancing. The band is outstanding, though it would benefit from the texture of a bigger strings section. Its many working parts are individual spectacles, which, at times, make for memorable musical comedy. But what it all adds up to is unclear. I wasn’t convinced that Holt! really did go beyond the humour of its main man’s disappearance. Ultimately, I left more confused about who Holt was than when I walked in.

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