Anhedonia is a condition that renders the sufferer unable to experience pleasure. In the rock musical Cages, which mixes live performance with holograms, film and animation, it is also the name of a grey dystopian city where the aesthetic is very Tim-Burton-meets-German-expressionism and any display of emotion is forbidden. Hiding in the shadows is the composer Woolf, who sees in Madeline, his pixie-ish muse, the prospect of true love. Can music help them overcome their obstacles?
The most significant one facing Cages is the very technology that acts as its selling-point. Advance word suggests that state-of-the-art holograms – an improvement on the days when Laurence Olivier’s floating head was projected on to the stage of the Dominion theatre for Time – will be indistinguishable from live actors. But the disparity whenever Woolf (played in the flesh by CJ Baran) interacts with Madeline (Allison Harvard in virtual form) is all too obvious. No wonder the love story feels bloodless when it depends on hitting marks and matching sight-lines, rather than old-fashioned chemistry and rapport. It doesn’t help that the characters communicate via silent-movie intertitles, with a narrator (Harwood Gordon, another hologram) doing all the talking.
Filmed crowd scenes showing ranks of secret police with metallic traffic cones on their heads (why?) only emphasise the meagreness of the in-person cast of eight. Baran, who co-created Cages with Benjamin K Romans, is a songwriter rather than an actor, and it shows — he has none of the physical expressiveness that could have made Woolf more than a plodding silhouette. The evening’s loveliest effect has virtual raindrops sploshing on a real umbrella.
The score, also by Baran and Romans, is often reminiscent of 808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye West: lots of doomy synths, vocoder and introspection. Madeline’s refrain, Somebody’s Somebody, is a pale echo of Vanessa Williams’s Save the Best for Last, while a singing moon with a human face prompts memories of The Mighty Boosh. The one bona fide pop anthem (A Love Song) arrives too late to save a prog-heavy second act during which audiences will know exactly how it feels to have anhedonia.