Not since Mel Brooks’s fictional show in The Producers, has anyone come up with a more inappropriate conceit for a musical; the latest sell-out on the London stage is an all-singing, all-dancing comedy about a sexually deviant, serial killer.
American Psycho: The Musical never quite reaches the glorious obscenity of the legendary Springtime For Hitler dance routine, but the pulsating 1980s soundtrack forms an intense backdrop for seduction and murder. Phil Collins will never sound the same to those who’ve watched Patrick Bateman circle his latest victim accompanied by the words “can you feel it coming in the air tonight?” She didn’t—until it was too late.
The unsettling moments, many of which have been borrowed from the big screen adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’s book, are out-numbered by the kitsch original numbers which have been composed, and choreographed, entirely in the style of ‘80s electronic synth-pop.
Duncan Sheik, the songwriter who won two Tonys and a Grammy for his 2006 musical Spring Awakening, has thrown himself fully into the era. The compact, off-West End, stage at the Almeida theatre in Islington is used brilliantly with huge projection screens and a fast-moving mechanized set. It’s an energetic, psychedelic homage to the golden era of the music video.
From the outset the small theatre was viewed as a test bed for an inevitable Broadway transfer. “Of course, everyone hopes to bring it to New York right away,” Sheik said ahead of the opening. “But we have to see how it goes.”
The entire Almeida run is a sell-out but after a slew of mixed reviews, the show’s future no longer seems assured. Insiders are refusing to “confirm or deny” suggestions that American Psycho might stay in London for a little longer while an American transfer is reconsidered.
The most glaring weakness of the production is certainly not insurmountable. Matt Smith has been chosen to play Patrick Bateman, and while he was an incredibly popular incarnation of Doctor Who on BBC TV he falls far short of the intensity of Christian Bale’s Bateman. The stunt casting of a popular musical novice helped to ensure buzz when the show opened, but his singing voice fails to deliver. It’s a shame particularly as some of the songs seem to lack conviction. There are plenty of laughs in the lyrics, however. In “You Are What You Wear,” a group of New York society women explain their dedication to high-end labels. “Won’t touch a drop of red wine / Don’t want to ruin the Calvin Klein,” they sing.
Bateman’s natural habitat, the money-spinning Upper West Side, is a world inhabited by familiar characters that recall Gordon Gecko, Tom Wolfe’s "Masters of the Universe," and The Wolf of Wall Street. The ‘80s decadence is captured so beautifully that some have complained the superficial slickness spills over from being the target of the show to permeate the entire production. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are wonderfully good fun. One of the best-loved scenes in the book and the film, where Bateman is devastated to see a superior business card to his own, is dealt with in a glorious musical section.
Oh baby, baby You’re such a card Make it look oh so easy When I know it’s fucking hard
As well as Sheik’s songs, the funding and the stage-adaptation hail from the U.S., where American Psycho’s future was supposed to lie. Most of the tickets in London were sold well before the reviewers pronounced it to be “glib, heartless and pretentious” so a sell-out run may not be enough to win this show a place on Broadway. If that makes it a flop, I don’t want to be the one to tell Bateman.