State Theatre, Sydney, April 6
When The Seekers themselves joined the cast at the opening night curtain call for Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical to take a bow with the actors who played them, it was the biggest moment of the night, packing an emotion that the musical itself never managed to deliver.
There is much to enjoy musically in this new Australian bio-musical about the group from Melbourne whose beautifully harmonised folk-pop sound won them such extraordinary international success in the 1960s.
Pippa Grandison who portrays Judith Durham is fabulous, while the actors who play the other three Seekers – Glaston Toft as Athol Guy, Mike McLeish as Bruce Woodley and Phillip Lowe as Keith Potger – do as much as they can with underwritten roles.
Together they do a great job of capturing The Seekers’ distinctive sound and gorgeous harmonies with crowd-pleasing performances of their hit songs such as I’ll Never Find Another You, A World of Our Own, The Carnival Is Over and Georgy Girl.
But the musical is hamstrung by a baggy book, which is in serious need of dramaturgical development. Written by Patrick Edgeworth, Durham’s brother-in-law, the show conveys information rather than actually dramatising events, with perfunctory dialogue setting up the songs.
Charting the Melbourne beginnings and extraordinary rise of The Seekers who went to London in 1964, the focus is very much on Durham who is characterised mainly by her worries about her weight (with a running gag about her not knowing what to wear), her lack of interest in fame, and her fear that at 24 she is an old maid.
Four years after hitting the heights, Durham famously decided to leave The Seekers just as America beckoned. The musical depicts her marriage to jazz pianist Ron Edgeworth with whom she subsequently toured then jumps forward to The Seekers’ 25th anniversary reunion and winds up (without any establishing set-up) with I Am Australian, which Woodley co-wrote in 1987.
Other characters are not developed in any depth so that the three “boys” in the band remain one-dimensional figures with little sense of what really made them tick or how their lives panned out.
Creating a show about The Seekers clearly has nostalgia appeal but problematically the wholesome, clean-cut foursome didn’t lead a particularly dramatic life. Using his brother and Durham’s future husband Ron (Adam Murphy) as a cheesy MC-like narrator, Edgeworth’s book acknowledges as much with comments like: “Other bands trashed their hotel rooms, The Seekers cleaned theirs up.”
Compounding that, the most dramatic, emotional story elements are cursorily dealt with, while other less interesting incidents are given more stage time. So, for example, there is a scene with Durham in hospital having had her appendix out when the boys visit and sing her to sleep with a rendition of Morningtown Ride (which the narrator then tells us never happened). Ho-hum.
Yet Durham’s near fatal car accident, after which she spent six months learning to walk again, and the brain haemorrhage that could have ended her singing career, are both dispensed with in a few short phrases. The death of her beloved husband from motor neurone disease is also depicted in quick-smart time.
The musical is full of missed emotional opportunities and loose ends. Judith’s sister Beverley (Sophie Carter) reluctantly leaves London when the doctor says one of them must go home to Balwyn to help their mother who has emphysema. Later Beverley is back in London with no explanation (and pregnant for what seems like an inordinately long time).
And did we really need to see a dream sequence in which John Ashby (Ian Stenlake), The Seekers’ tour manager and Durham’s cheating ex-boyfriend, sings Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual, complete with gyrating choreography?
Where the musical scores is with The Seekers’ songs and the quality of the lead casting. In a warm, lively performance, Grandison really captures Judith Durham’s girl-next-door quality and manages to convey a similar physical quality helped by the costuming. Her singing is gorgeous, with a sweet purity not unlike Durham’s, and she is in top form vocally whether she’s singing jazz, blues or folk.
Lowe, McLeish and Toft are also terrific, making as much of the thin characterisation as they can and creating likeable figures. Together their music-making is spot-on. Props too to Stephen Amos, the musical supervisor, arranger and orchestrator, and to the 11-piece band under musical director Stephen Gray.
Murphy adds plenty of ham to the cheese as the narrator in sparkly jacket. Carrying a great deal of the show’s momentum on his shoulders, he certainly lifts the energy levels and extracts as many laughs as the script allows, while delivering the frequent lame jokes with a knowing shrug.
Shaun Gurton’s set is basic to say the least with flimsy-looking metallic grey walls, a moveable staircase and a screen for footage. The costumes (Isaac Lummis) and choreography (Michael Ralph) add plenty of colour and movement, but also plenty of clichés from the up-tight gents in bowler hats who strut their stuff when The Seekers arrive in London to psychedelic outfits that look like a parody of 1960s fashion, not to mention the glitzy shamrock green outfits for two Irish lasses, used along with other equally obvious outfits to illustrate a Seekers tour.
Director Gary Young keeps the show moving with a fair amount of pace but without building emotional moments and tension. Running two hours and 40 minutes (including interval), it feels long. It’s the songs that keep the musical buoyant. For many audience members, that will be enough. There have apparently been plenty of standing ovations as audiences relish the nostalgia trip and the music. But it could have been so much better.
Georgy Girl is at the State Theatre until June 5. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100