Miracle City

Hayes Theatre Co, October 24

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The hotly anticipated second coming of the Australian musical Miracle City is upon us and, praise the Lord, it more than lives up to expectations.

Written by Max Lambert (music) and the late Nick Enright (book and lyrics), the show had a sold out season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996. For various reasons, it hasn’t been seen since.

But finally Luckiest Production is staging a revival at the Hayes Theatre Co, directed by Darren Yap, with Lambert himself as musical director.

Set in Tennessee, Miracle City tells of US televangelist family the Truswells – Ricky (Mike McLeish), his gospel-singing wife Lora-Lee (Blazey Best) and their wholesome children, 16-year old Loretta (Hilary Cole) and younger son Ricky-Bob (Cameron Holmes).

The musical happens in real time during one of their Sunday morning TV shows. With the cameras on them it’s all gleaming white smiles, glorious country-gospel songs and cheesy, God-will-heal-you joy. But backstage, a much darker story is unfolding.

Ricky is determined to build a Christian theme park (“first you pray, and then you play”) but, unbeknown to Lora-Lee, the Truswell ministry is hemorrhaging money and massively in debt. Possible salvation arrives in the form of filthy rich, fire-and-brimstone preacher Millard Sizemore (Peter Kowitz). But Sizemore wants something shocking in return.

Lambert has described Miracle City as something of an “anti-musical” in that the songs don’t function as they normally do in a book show. They don’t further the action, nor do they illuminate character or motive (though I’ll Hold On does give us an insight into Bonnie-Mae’s pain).

Instead the musical numbers all happen as part of the TV show. They convey the shiny façade that the Truswells present to the world. Reality happens in the dialogue scenes.

They’re beautiful songs, though, ranging from the rousingly uplifting to the comical to the hauntingly moving, and Yap’s excellent cast absolutely nails them.

At the show’s emotional heart, Best gives a stunning performance as a woman whose life is suddenly undone. One minute she is recommending you “find the God in your man”. The next she hardly recognises her husband.

Renowned as an actor in straight theatre, Best gives us a woman who is a glitzy construct of the armour-like wig, make-up and jewellery she wears, then strips herself bare emotionally in a raw, heart-rending performance. And she can sing too.

Hannaford is also quietly affecting as recovering addict Bonnie-Mae. Her soulful, floating rendition of I’ll Hold On is exquisite, and she also unleashes powerhouse vocals with Marika Aubrey and Josie Lane as the trio of Citadel Singers: Aubrey as the down-to-earth, rock-solid Eulella and Lane as the joy-filled, true-believing Charlene.

Cole is perfect as Loretta, looking as angelic as she sounds in her long skirt, cardigan, pearls and hair ribbons, yet hinting at darker corners as her faith, naivety and teenage friction with her mother prove a frightening combination.

Holmes is also excellent as Ricky-Bob, his subtle expressions so incredibly telling and poignant you find yourself watching his every reaction.

Mike McLeish and Blazey Best. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Mike McLeish and Blazey Best. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

McLeish and Kowitz have less to work with in that Ricky and Sizemore are written with less psychological depth than Lora-Lee, but both actors invest the roles with a cold charisma. The way that Kowitz alone never smiles for the camera is particularly chilling.

Jason Kos completes the cast with a strong performance as the (non-singing) stage manager Billy.

The set by Michael Hankin is little more than a sparkly curtain with a couple of monitors and dressing room tables on either side of the stage, but with Hugh Hamilton’s lighting helping to shift the focus between the TV studio and backstage, it’s all it needs in the tiny space.

Roger Kirk’s costumes, with a red-white-and-blue look for the Truswells, capture the cheap glitz of the world they have created, with Ben Moir’s wigs the fabulous, finishing touch.

Choreographer Kelley Abbey completes the top creative team assembled by Yap and she too finds a way to create movement that works perfectly in the tiny venue.

Miracle City begins in celebratory mode and ends in shattering fashion as we contemplate the disgusting self-interest, ego and abusive behaviour of two men in positions of power, while others find new strength to face the world and carry on.

The show could arguably still do with a little dramaturgical finessing but in just 85 minutes it takes you on a roller-coaster ride that makes you laugh, cry and shudder. It still feels disturbingly relevant and it’s great that it’s finally back. Catch it while you can.

Miracle City runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until November 16. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 2


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