Ladies in Black

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne, February 4

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Enchanting. That’s the word you keep hearing when people discuss the new Australian musical Ladies in Black – and enchanting it is.

It’s wonderful to see an Australian musical that succeeds so well as a show, feels distinctively Australian and strikes such a chord with audiences. What’s more, unlike hit musicals Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Boy From Oz, which use existing songs, Ladies in Black has an original score written by Tim Finn.

It was Finn who initiated the project, having had his interest piqued in writing a musical after a dozen of his pop songs were used in Poor Boy, a 2009 play with music by Matt Cameron. Finn approached Simon Phillips, the director of Poor Boy, who quickly became interested in the idea of Ladies in Black and agreed to direct it, bringing his wife Carolyn Burns on board to write the book, which is adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black.

Regular Phillips collaborator Gabriela Tylesova was enlisted to design set and costumes, Guy Simpson joined the team as orchestrator and musical supervisor, with Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer and David Walters as lighting designer. Together, they proved to be a match made in heaven and the results are a true delight.

Produced by Queensland Theatre Company, Ladies in Black premiered in Brisbane in November and was then presented by Melbourne Theatre Company in Melbourne, where it opened in January and runs until February 27.

Set in Sydney in the 1950s, it tells the coming-of-age story of high school leaver Lisa Miles; a story which embodies the changing role and status of women in Australia at that time. It’s also about a city and a country on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan thanks to the influx of European immigrants or “continentals” as the Australian characters call them.

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Christen O’Leary as Magda and Sarah Morrison as Lisa. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Lisa, who is super-bright, wants to go to university if she gets the high grades anticipated. Her mother is supportive but her working class father won’t have a bar of it. As he sees it, a secretarial course is more than enough education for a woman; he’s already been generous in letting her stay on at school.

Over the Christmas holidays, Lisa gets a job at Goodes, Sydney’s most prestigious department store (a thinly disguised David Jones). Naïve and mousey when she starts, her horizons are rapidly expanded by the two women she assists in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, Patty and Fay, and particularly by the enigmatic Magda, a Hungarian refugee, who oversees the more exclusive attire in Model Gowns.

Magda takes a shine to Lisa and invites her home to meet her husband Stefan, where Lisa is excited by the chance to taste different food, discuss literature, dance and glimpse a far more bohemian, cultured, passionate lifestyle.

Woven through this narrative are the stories of Patty, who desperately wants a child but whose husband walks out on her when the infertility problem seems to be his, and Fay, a lively young woman with a past who would dearly love to settle down but who can’t find a man who wants more than a brief fling.

Burns’ book skilfully juggles the various stories and while it doesn’t go into great depth, the characters are well enough drawn and so beautifully performed that we believe in them, warm to them and care about them all.

In a succinct piece of storytelling, we also meet the lonely, kindly Miss Jacobs, whose fiancée was killed during the First World War. In a few brief moments we learn enough about her to be very moved by a short scene showing her at Christmas.

Finn’s music, which ranges in style from country ballads to soaring romantic odes to comedy numbers, is charmingly melodic. There isn’t a big 11 o’clock number, which wouldn’t go astray. Instead, the show ends with a reprisal of a song called “Tomorrow Becomes Today”.

The lyrics, also written by Finn, are sharp and witty, drawing on the Australian vernacular to great comic effect in numbers including the show-stopper “He’s a Bastard”, which gets a huge response. Fay’s song “I Just Kissed a Continental” is also joyously uplifting.

Performed by a six-piece band led by musical director David Young, the thoroughly engaging score has been given some lovely arrangements by Simpson.

Phillips, whose musical theatre credits include Priscilla, Love Never Dies and The Drowsy Chaperone among others, directs with consummate flair, keeping the action moving swiftly and seamlessly, aided by the three stage revolves incorporated into Tylesova’s design. Together with Hallsworth’s choreography, all the moments land from poignant moments of quiet drama to the exuberant showpieces.The only scene that feels under-staged (because of cast size and logistics) is Magda’s New Year’s Eve party where Magda essentially narrates what happens (including Lisa meeting a young man) and we just see silhouettes of people dancing.

Tylesova’s set features several Perspex pillars to suggest the elegance of Goodes, along with various props from clothing racks to tables and chairs, which appear quickly for the different settings. Her costumes are just gorgeous from glamorous gowns to colourful cotton frocks to 1950s beachwear.

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Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder (front); Naomi Price, Deidre Rubenstein and Christen O’Leary (behind). Photo: Rob Maccoll

The cast is uniformly terrific – and given that the musical is primarily about women, it’s wonderful to see such a large, strong female cast. Sarah Morrison convincingly portrays Lisa’s gradual blossoming from shy, gauche youngster to confident young woman ready to face a brave new world. And, yes, she wears glasses initially which are later removed – a well-worn trick but one that works.

Lucy Maunder brings a luminosity and vulnerability to Patty, subtly conveying her confusion and heartache when her husband leaves. Naomi Price is wonderfully vivacious as Fay, and has us all rooting for her to find love. Christen O’Leary brings just the right level of exoticism to Magda, while the warm, loving, playful relationship she has with her Hungarian husband is delightfully evoked by her and Greg Stone.

Deidre Rubenstein gives a touching performance as the lonely Miss Jacobs, Carita Farrer Spencer conveys a quiet strength as Lisa’s mother, while Kate Cole and the very funny Kathryn McIntyre, both impress in double roles.

As the men in the women’s lives, Stone is excellent, giving two very different performances as Lisa’s disciplinarian, working class father and Magda’s loving, supportive husband. Bobby Fox is heartwarmingly charming as Rudi, another young Hungarian refugee and friend of Magda’s, and gets to dazzle with some fancy footwork, while Andrew Broadbent captures the emotional repression of Patty’s “bastard” Aussie husband Frank, later revealing the shame and hidden pain he is struggling with.

While tackling themes including the cultural cringe, sexism and xenophobic attitudes to refugees, Ladies in Black doesn’t dig that deep in its exploration of the era and has a light, almost fairytale feel to it. Nonetheless, the issues are still strongly felt and we care about all the characters. It’s a beguiling, joyous show and sent me home floating on air. Hopefully someone will bring it to Sydney – it certainly deserves to be more widely seen.

Ladies in Black plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until February 27. Bookings: www.mtc.com.au or 03 8688 0800

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The Sound of Musicals in Australia in 2015

At the 2014 Helpmann Awards, a David and Goliath contest in the musical theatre categories generated the biggest buzz of the night, with observers genuinely intrigued to see how the votes had landed.

For there, alongside the large commercial shows like The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show and Strictly Ballroom, was Sweet Charity: the inaugural production from the newly formed Hayes Theatre Co, which had turned a 110-seat theatre in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point into a dedicated venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret.

Sweet Charity, which sold out within three days after rapturous reviews, received eight Helpmann nominations and won three for its director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and leading lady Verity Hunt-Ballard.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar in Sweet Charity. Photo: supplied

The production returns this week, opening at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre on Friday for a three-week season then touring to Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.

“I am thrilled that this tiny little show is getting a bigger life,” says Bryant. “It was a magical time for all of us, and we never could have seen that it would have the impact and get the response that it did. I’m very keen for people to see what we did, and especially to see Verity’s brilliant performance.”

Bryant says that the 2015 revival will have “the same spirit as the original but be refitted and possibly redesigned into the larger venues that it will play. It’s not about replicating it, but remembering what the engine of the original production was and finding out how to do that in a new venue.”

Bryant is one of Australia’s busiest young musical theatre directors. He is the worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and has directed The Producers, Anything Goes and, late last year, La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company in Melbourne.

This year, he helms his biggest production to date: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which he believes has “a perfectly conceived script and a brilliant score”.

Opera Australia is co-producing the show with John Frost, following their successful collaborations on South Pacific and The King and I.

It was Todd McKenney who initiated the production, telling Frost he’d love to reprise the role of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, which he played for The Production Company.

“I thought, ‘good idea, it’s time for a revival’ and I thought Dean had done such a great job of it. I asked if he’d like to do it, though I said, ‘I don’t want it to be a copy of what The Production Company did,’” says Frost.

The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney alongside McKenney, Alex Rathgeber, Debora Krizak, Wayne Scott Kermond, Claire Lyon, Carmen Duncan and (controversially) Alan Jones in the small role of the ship’s captain.

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O'Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O’Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The basic structure of the set has been imported from a New Zealand production but designer Dale Ferguson is refurbishing it, making significant change and changes to create a new look. Ferguson will also design the costumes.

Hallsworth will do the choreography as he did for The Production Company version but the production will be new.

“We have a mostly new principal cast, it will be a fresh ensemble, there are new designers on board and we’re in different venues,” says Bryant. “As far as I’m concerned we’ll build it as if we’ve never done the show before, but we happen to have the knowledge of the previous production stored in our memory banks.

“There was one delicious part of Andrew’s choreography in the title number that HAS to make its way back into the show, but otherwise we’ll build the ship from scratch.”

Matilda the Musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin is one of the year’s most keenly anticipated shows.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Described by the New York Times as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”, Matilda was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who premiered it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010. In 2011, it transferred to the West End winning rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards. A Broadway production opened in 2013 to ecstatic reviews and won four Tony Awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a precocious, book-loving child with a ghastly family and a brutally evil headmistress, who stands up to injustice and prevails against the odds, with a little help from her telekinetic powers.

The RSC will present the show in Australia with several producers including Australian-based Louise Withers whose other credits include Billy Elliot the Musical.

The cast will be announced in April. “We are auditioning between November and February. When you are dealing with this many children you can’t audition too early as they grow up too fast,” says Withers.

There are a total of 29 children across three casts. “We had 52 children in Billy Elliot so 29 is OK,” she adds sanguinely.

Withers emphasises that the show is not just for children. “It ticks the box for every age group from six to 76. A lot of adults today were Roald Dahl devotees growing up. They are now parents reading the books to their children. It jumps generations in the same way as The Lion King.”

Some believe that Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where the production opens in August, is too large for the show.

“Obviously it’s a different size to the London theatre. Theatres in London and New York tend to be smaller. But the design will be developed to help bring the eye in, and the show is full of life and energy so I’m sure it will fill the space,” says Withers.

Sydney will also host the Australian premiere of Here Lies Love, which will be presented as a centerpiece of the Vivid Sydney festival. An immersive disco musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, the show had its first outing at the 2006 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in a concert version. The fully-fledged show premiered in New York in 2013 and recently had a sell-out London season produced by the National Theatre.

The inventive staging has the actors performing on platforms and moving catwalks, creating a club-like environment in which the audience is forced to keep moving, while video projections mix historical footage with live simulcasts.

The Australian production will be staged in The Millennium, a purpose-built, pop-up venue in Barangaroo.

From London’s West End comes Thriller Live, which celebrates the music and career of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. The national tour began in Perth in December. The show opens in Brisbane this week then tours to Melbourne and Sydney with short seasons in each. (There is an interview with the show’s creator Adrian Grant on this blog).

In September, The Lion King became the top-selling musical, indeed entertainment, of all time taking $6.2 billion worldwide since it opened on Broadway in 1997. After doing roaring business in Sydney this year, the production opens in Melbourne in February.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical also moves to Melbourne where it plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from this Saturday after premiering to mixed reviews in Sydney.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

“As with any brand new production we’re taking the opportunity of trimming and tightening the show,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and producer of the musical. “Since opening we have shortened the running time, restaged Time After Time, added a new opening number and given greater clarity to the story telling and staging.”

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables, with brand new staging, starts the year in Perth and then moves to Sydney in March, after a successful Melbourne season in 2014.

Other musicals, which continue touring into 2015 include Grease (which runs at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until January 30), Wicked and The Rocky Horror Show, all produced in Australia by Frost.

Wicked closes in Sydney on January 30. Suzie Mathers takes over the role of Glinda from Lucy Durack (who is expecting her first baby) for the Brisbane season from February 12 and then Perth in May. Simon Gallaher takes on the role of the Wizard.

Craig McLachlan reprises the role of Frank N Furter in the Sydney season of The Rocky Horror Show, which begins its run on April 11, with Bert Newton stepping into the role of the Narrator. Other cast changes will be announced soon. The show then returns to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in June.

Sadly, Once, which Frost produced with Melbourne Theatre Company, will not tour despite wonderful reviews. It plays in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until February 8.

Though not strictly a musical in the way it uses (or fails to use) songs, Frost is also producing a 10th anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing, which began life in Australia in 2004 before spending five years in the West End. Starring Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, it received mixed reviews when it opened in Sydney recently. The Sydney season winds up on February 22 then moves to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

There have been persistent rumours that Frost will also produce The Sound of Music in 2015 though nothing is yet confirmed. Stay tuned.

Though Frost candidly admits that he isn’t terribly keen on producing new musicals, he does have one in the pipeline: Dream Lover about Bobby Darin, which was to have opened late in the year but will now probably open in 2016.

“I don’t really enjoy doing new musicals, they’re too hard for me,” says Frost, whose productions of An Officer and A Gentleman and Doctor Zhivago struggled at the box office.

“Whilst I will do them and we are going to do (Dream Lover), I get more kicks out of doing these big, brassy entertainments like (Anything Goes). Musicals are so expensive and to raise the money for them (is hard). That is just the way this country is. If you haven’t got a Tony Award or an Olivier Award attached to a show (investors) look at you as if you’re a freak.”

Written by Michael-John Howson and Frank Howson, Dream Lover has had two workshops and a substantial amount of script development. Simon Phillips will direct the production once he and the right-sized theatre become available. “I didn’t really want to put it into a 2000-seat theatre,” says Frost.

Phillips will also direct a new musical for Queensland Theatre Company called Ladies in Black. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Woman in Black, it has a book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn.

Set in Sydney, during the 1950s and 60s, Ladies in Black centres on Lisa, a bright-eyed, bookish school leaver whose life is transformed when she joins the sales staff in the city’s most prestigious department store. The production stars Christen O’Leary.

Other subsidised companies to feature musicals in their seasons include Melbourne Theatre Company, which is staging a “boutique musical” called What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, by Aidan Fennessy, a contemporary love story with songs from Tim Rogers’ first solo album, and Victorian Opera, which is presenting Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, following productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company will also stage its first musical for many years and its first American musical: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal about a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Opening in November, it will star Rachael Beck and Brendan Hanson.

“It won three Tony Awards from 11 nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama so it was an obvious one for us to dip our toe into the water with,” says artistic director Kate Cherry.

Cherry says that she is “really hoping in the future to do one musical a year. I love the form but I tend to be interested in more off-beat musicals. I’m fascinated at how musicals can allow us to talk about really difficult subjects yet enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the Hayes Theatre Co is currently staging an acclaimed production of Next to Normal from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts with Natalie O’Donnell in the central role of Diana.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts' Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts’ Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Other productions coming up at the Hayes include Blood Brothers in February and, in May, Dogfight based on the 1991 film of the same name about three young soldiers on a final bender before they leave for Vietnam.

These and other independent productions around the country by smaller companies such as Squabbalogic in Sydney (which presents Man of La Mancha with Tony Sheldon from February 25 and Triassic Parq in June), Magnormos in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane will add immeasurably to the musical theatre ecology.

News that the Hayes has relaunched New Musicals Australia, an initiative dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre, is especially welcome for Australian musical theatre writers.

A version of this story appeared in The Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine