Fascinating story and complex characters in new musical, ‘Razorhurst’


Claire McClanahan, left, and Catherine Fries Vaughn co-star in “Razorhurst” at Luna Stage in West Orange.

Imagine “War Paint,” except with the dueling businesswomen hawking booze, coke and whores instead of lipstick and blush.

Also, both heroines are dead.

Or better, imagine “The Wire” — but with songs and tea, and a focus on white women in early 20th century Sydney, Australia, instead of black men in early 21st century Baltimore.

“Razorhurst” — a new musical with book and lyrics by Kate Mulley and music by Andy Peterson, now playing at Luna Stage in West Orange — gets a lot of its entertainment value out of being unique: a two-hander musical about the woman-dominated underworld of Australia’s previous century. Set in a coffee shop.

The production also boasts two stars — Catherine Fries Vaughn as brittle booze-seller Kate Leigh, and Claire McClanahan as slinky, lethal madam Tilly Devine — who rip into these juicy, complex roles like kids attacking a pile of presents on Christmas morning. They are wonderful, funny, heartbreaking company throughout the show’s single act, which barrels along at a nonstop pace.

The show is set in present-day Sydney, in a neighborhood called Darlinghurst. (The set really is a functioning coffee shop before the show begins, and the performers weave in between tables of patrons throughout the show — when they’re not singing behind, or on top of, the shop counter, sampling the wares and exclaiming over the current cost of a latte.)

Pictures and old tabloid newspaper clippings on the walls describe the shop’s colorful history: The building was originally the first of Kate’s empire of “sly grog” shops, where she sold then-illegal alcohol. After the shop closes, Kate’s ghost, resplendent in furs, hat and heels, uses an old key to break into the place, get a look at her old digs, and defend herself against the scandalous account of her life that appears in the papers.

Really, she was “the best woman in Sydney,” she sings — a philanthropic businesswoman who gave out presents to local kids on the holidays. Unlike her archrival, Tilly, whom she despises for being a prostitute. Her body was the one thing Kate refused to sell. (Well, sort of — she did run through rather a lot of husbands.) Naturally, Tilly’s ghost promptly arrives to argue that her business was just as valid as Kate’s.

The coffee shop frame of the musical can be confusing — as is a long passage in the middle of the show in which the women act out a courtroom drama, defending themselves against “charges” ranging from being a bad mother, to murder. That’s a lot of nesting conceits surrounding the core story of rival gang leaders, which is complicated enough on its own.

But that story is compelling. These women became criminals to escape desperate poverty — from which they could see no legitimate means of escape. But they were helped along in their careers by Victorian Era laws that had wildly unintended consequences. Pimping prostitutes, for example, was illegal — but the law banning it was written so that it only applied to men, which allowed Tilly to establish her businesses. A crackdown on guns led to rival gangs settling their differences with straight razors. Cocaine remained legal as alcohol was banned.

If the show has a weakness, it’s in the music. The opener, “The Worst Woman in Sydney,” is a hummably catchy tune, but it’s the only one of several songs that really shines. There’s no 11 o’clock number here, nor a ballad equal to the anguish the women describe as they lose children and husbands as their rivalry heats up and their businesses flourish. (Side note: Just once, I want to see a show about a ragingly successful businesswoman who does not pay for her success by fraying all family ties.)

Both Vaughn and McClanahan have strong voices — Vaughn’s is sharp and powerful, in the LuPone tradition, while McClanahan’s is lighter and sweet — and they sell each number for all it’s worth. You’d like to see them have just a few more barnburners to work with.

But this is an undeniably an entertaining show, and a spotlight on an absolutely fascinating moment in history. You should catch “Razorhurst” if you can — new musicals need audiences, for one thing, and shows with great roles for women do, too. And this one is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve seen before.

“Razorhurst” runs through March 4 at Luna Stage in West Orange. Visit lunastage.org.

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