THEATRE / Painting by numbers: Paul Taylor finds sanitation and fabrication in John Kane's musical biography Leonardo - A Portrait of Love at the Strand Theatre
'How do you see it in terms of structure, Chris?'
'Well, Trevor, I see it basically as a 'boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy paints as compensation' kind of scenario.'
'Mmm, good, good. I foresee just one little snag, Chris. This Bacon, wasn't he pretty heavily into, like, other guys?'
'So - we give him a best friend. I see them having a big, unspoken Platonic thing going. But the friend knows he could never take the place in Bacon's heart of this dead chick. All he's had is a brush with genius.'
'A brush with genius, hey, what a title. We should think seriously about this . . .'
If you'd seen Leonardo, the new musical at the Strand Theatre, you would not regard the above as at all far-fetched. It begins and ends with the hero on his deathbed, the Mona Lisa - which throughout his life he has obsessively repainted, we're told - on an easel at his side. In between, John Kane's book fabricates a love affair between Leonardo and Lisa, the painting's 'alleged' model, who, to cover up her pregnancy by him and so save his life, spurns the painter, marries her fiance, and eventually meets a sticky end.
As you'd expect, the musical serenely ignores the sodomy charge Leonardo faced in his mid-teens, or any mention of the way his sexuality may have shaped his perception of the female form. Indeed, it would have been better if they had ignored the whole gay issue, rather than raise it in such a sanitised, glutinous form. There are chaste hints of something more than friendship between Leonardo and his sidekick Meltzi (Hal Fowler), but the musical carefully waits until the painter is a corpse, and thus ill-equipped for hanky-panky, before it allows Meltzi to declare his perplexed passion: 'I touch the hand that set you apart / But did I ever touch your heart?' Behind him, restored to youth and in heavenly white, the posthumous painter (Paul Collis) does his best to reciprocate the affection. It's Lisa, needless to say, he takes through the pearly gates.
Moderately well sung but banal in every other department, Leonardo has the bad luck to open in the same week as Sweeney Todd, a piece which, musically and lyrically, is in a different universe from the dog- eared, derivative pop idiom trotted out here. A more damaging contrast, though, would be Sunday in the Park with George, where Sondheim also tackled a painter but made Seurat's perceptions and struggle with technique integral to the love story and reflected in the music.
In Leonardo, there's just the usual hokey notion of genius, which doesn't provide as many laughs as one had hoped, though Meltzi's line 'Not the secret of life, Leonardo, not now' is an instant classic, and it will be hard to efface the memory of the cathedral scene where a merry chorus of beggars and clergy dance round the painter singing 'He's off his head, he's off his head'. All too sane and normal, Mr Collis plays Leonardo as an engaging, cocky, ordinary lad: imagine Phillip Schofield as Einstein and you'll get something of the same effect. An atmosphere of intellectual inquiry is not exactly fostered by the dialogue or mushy lyrics. 'I can fly whenever I'm this close to you' - so who needs aerodynamics?
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