Desmond Channing had it all. He had looks. He had the voice. He had perfectly coiffed hair. Heck, he was even the President of the drama club at the Ronald Reagan High School. So why the Hell is he performing every night in the dingiest cabaret club on the Seventh Circle of the underworld? A clue, as Dante’s enthusiasts will know, is that level is reserved for murderers. Before the overture is over, Desmond reveals that he is forced to act out his former wrongdoings, live from Hell. And so the musical retrospective begins.
No sooner has this “average teenager” taken up his role as drama club president, then he’s ready to streamline his Executive powers with a new 100-page Club Constitution and he’s step-ball-changing towards their next project: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Everything is coming up roses for Desmond…until the arrival of Evan Harris! Laid back, guitar-playing, song-writing dude, Evan Harris. Straight from the Performing Arts High School in super cool Manhattan Evan Harris. Or as Desmond suggests, in one of the show’s best jokes, the Glenn Close to his Patti LuPone.
And from that moment, it’s a downward spiral into desperation, insecurity, madness and, of course, murder.
Diva: Live From Hell has set musical-theatre twitter a-blaze with excitement. And none other than British musical-theatre royalty Carrie Hope Fletcher has taken to her social media to wax lyrical about this show. And yet the performance The Recs watched on Monday didn’t quite live up to all we were expecting.
Everything we loved about the show can be summed up in two words: Luke Bayer. Fresh from his success in Millennials at The Other Palace and Rent at the Hope Mill Theatre last year, Diva allows Bayer to showcase a multitude of skills as a performer. He plays all the characters of the story, switching perfectly from the increasingly neurotic Desmond to the chilled Evan, from the paternal teacher Mr Dallas to the long-suffering, little complaining Allie Hewett, each superbly acted. Followers of Luke Bayer’s stage career will be familiar with his singing voice – he has a vocal belt and he’s certainly not afraid to use it. As if that’s not enough, he unleashes a glorious tap-dancing number in the middle of the show and nothing was left in the high school locker. Put simply: Luke Bayer has talent to burn!
His performance is heavenly but beyond that is where our enthusiasm falters slightly. Said to be inspired by the classic Bette Davis movie All About Eve, it barely references it. Other than Desmond sharing Margot Channing surname and his character becoming obsessed “all about Evan”, there is little to compare. Evan is no pretend ingénue who plots and schemes to take the Channing stardom.
Other classic movies are tangentially referenced (Gone With The Wind, Mildred Pierce) like a starter kit Ryan Murphy. In fact, the only point where the show embraces that golden era filmmaking is when Desmond takes his final revenge on his perceived nemesis. Diva suddenly stops being a musical for a section and riffs somewhat on the opening of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (The car bit, not I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy).
The book far more takes its feel from films the likes of Mean Girls or Heathers. Into the mix, Diva Live From Hell throws in a whole other realm of reference points: the world of American musical theatre. While namechecks of Betty Buckley, Ethel Merman and Patti Lupone might be known to most potential audience members, the fact the programme has a glossary for the un-theatrical explaining references to Joe Papp and the Flower Drum Song pushes Diva towards a far more niche market. Shoshana Bean joke, anyone?
The show’s humour takes a similarly scattergun approach. There is an unnecessary, glib joke about Jeffrey Epstein at the top of the show which sours proceedings from the off. It’s an update of a tasteless joke in previous productions but their replacement feel far too soon. What does work, and feels more like the kind of show its title suggests, is when Desmond, dethroned from the Presidency, unleashes an almighty torrent of insults on his fellow classmates. The library is open and everyone is read! This is the diva behaviour we have come to see.
One thing a diva needs is an audience. What’s the point in gloriously bad behaviour if there’s no-one there to gasp at it? The Seventh Circle was decidedly underpopulated last night. With just one cabaret table filled, Bayer has less to interact with. With a packed house, his diva certainly has the energy and the voice to deliver a wickedly entertaining evening.
Luke Bayer offers salvation to Diva Live From Hell from a rather irresolute book –
dragging ★★★★ (4 stars) from the very bowels of the Underworld