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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Defying Gravity

Theatre Royal, February 13

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Sutton Foster and Aaaron Tveit in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

 

It sounded pretty special on paper but high expectations were far exceeded in Defying Gravity, an electrifying concert featuring the songs of Stephen Schwartz that sent me home walking on air.

Produced by Enda Markey, the show was beautifully crafted in every respect and the love that swelled from the audience was well and truly deserved.

For starters there was the stellar cast: two of Broadway’s hottest stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, West End star Joanna Ampil, Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Broadway legend Betty Buckley making a guest appearance in the second act. They were all wonderful but Foster and Tveit completely blew me away. The chance to see them on the Sydney stage was a gift.

The meaty program was extremely well put-together featuring songs both very well known and less familiar including numbers from Schwartz’s musicals Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife and, of course, Wicked, along with numbers from Disney animated films such as Pocahontas, Enchanted and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on which he collaborated as lyricist with composer Alan Menken.

There was a good mixture of solos, duets and group numbers and lovely changes of pace from roof-raising numbers performed with the magnificent 15-piece band under conductor Guy Simpson to moments of quiet restraint such as Foster’s spellbinding rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt with solo guitar (Daniel Maher) and Cold Enough to Snow from the movie Life With Mikey movingly sung by Tveit accompanied on piano by Michael Tyack.

The choice of songs clearly illustrated Schwartz’s skill as a songwriter: a fine lyricist able to tell a story succinctly in song and convey a strong sense of character, emotion and empathy, as well as a catchy tunesmith.

Trent Suidgeest’s stage design was simple but had enough sparkle for the occasion with hanging strings of silver flakes as well as silver dusting the stage. Smoothly directed by Andrew Pole, the choreography of the performers on and off stage (as well as in several songs) was deft, as was their linking material, while the inclusion of comments from Schwartz on screen added insight to his career and process including his songwriting mantra: “Just tell the truth and make it rhyme”.

It was fascinating to see how the number The Wizard and I from Wicked gradually evolved from a song initially entitled Making Good.

The band was excellent and the sound was terrific (System Sound, Julian Spink and David Tonion).

Defying Gravity: The Songs Of Stephen Schwartz

David Harris, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Schwartz, Aaron Tveit, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster and Joanna Ampil in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

And then there were the performers. Sutton Foster, whose many Broadway credits include Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Violet, has a voice to die for: bright, clear, silvery and soaring. She can belt to the heavens as she showed with Defying Gravity, which had the audience on their feet screaming, or rein it right back in heartbreaking fashion as with I’m Not That Girl.

Tveit was also sensational. Star of Broadway shows Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, he played Enjolras in the 2012 movie of Les Miserables and Danny Zuko in the recent Fox Grease: Live. His lovely, light tenor soars effortlessly, he charms with a cheeky smile and twinkle in the eye, and he has a great sense of comedy. He knocked it out of the park with Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife and hammed it up delightfully in All From the Best from Godspell with David Harris.

Harris was also in fine voice. Known here for his performances in shows including Miss Saigon and Legally Blonde, he is now based in New York. Exuding a natural ease on stage, he gave a beautiful rendition of Corner of the Sky from Pippin and got a huge response from the audience with the sexy duet Endless Delights, performed with Helen Dallimore.

Dallimore, who originated the role of Glinda in the London production of Wicked and whose credits in Australia include Blood Brothers and Legally Blonde, showed her comic chops with Endless Delights, Popular from Wicked and It’s An Art, a song by a waitress from the musical Working.

Joanna Ampil, who has a lovely soprano voice, charmed with songs including Lion Tamer from The Magic Show, That’s How You Know from Enchanted and, most particularly, Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas.

Betty Buckley performed three songs in the second act: No Time At All from Pippin, in which she starred for several years, as well as Chanson and the gorgeous Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, bringing the audience to their feet. Schwartz actually wrote The Baker’s Wife with Buckley in mind but despite six auditions she didn’t land the role – a disappointment so devastating it consumed her for years as she explains with wry humour.

The show ended with Schwartz taking to the stage to perform Day By Day with the full company – an uplifting and touching end to an incredibly special event, which once again had the audience on their feet.

Earlier in the day, I saw Schwartz in conversation with Leigh Sales, a terrific interview about his career and craft, which only added to my appreciation of the concert.

All in all, a big thanks to Enda Markey for producing Defying Gravity. It was a little slice of musical theatre heaven. Pure bliss!