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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Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

In February last year, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene with a thrilling production of Sweet Charity directed by Dean Bryant and starring Verity Hunt-Ballard.

The ingeniously staged, dirtied-up, gritty take on the 1966 musical had audiences and critics raving (you will find my review on this blog) and three days after opening you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

The show went on to win three Helpmanns for Bryant, Hunt-Ballard and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and has nine nominations at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards to be presented tomorrow (January 19).

The announcement of a remount at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre and then a tour to Canberra, Melbourne and Wollongong generated much excitement. But how would the production – created for the intimacy of the 110- seat Hayes Theatre – fare in a bigger venue?

Well, it has sashayed seamlessly into the Playhouse where it received a rapturous response at Friday’s opening night.

Inevitably you lose some of the intimacy but there are compensations. Hallsworth’s fabulous choreography (with nods to Fosse) has more room to sharpen and breathe for starters. And if anything, the performances seem more detailed than ever as most of the original performers revisit their roles.

The grungy staging is essentially the same: an inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors, a few chairs, a costume rack and a red neon sign at the back saying, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (set design by Owen Phillips).

Tim Chappel has revamped some of the costumes adding extra colour and sparkle to various outfits including the witty, surreal costumes for The Frug, which gives the production a little more visual zing in the larger space.

Hunt-Ballard, who gave a sensational performance last time around as Charity Hope Valentine – the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who keeps looking for love (and at one point an office job) as a passport to a better life – is more stunning than ever.

She radiates such warmth, such sweet, kooky naivety and such sunny optimism that her Charity is irresistibly endearing. Her comic timing is a knockout but always there is the knowledge that Charity uses ditzy humour to deal with her hurt and pain, as a way to bounce back, until that final, terrible let-down.

Hunt-Ballard inhabits the role completely. She sings superbly, dances well and her acting is sublime. But never do we feel that she is busting out a big song-and-dance number. Always the songs emerge organically from the character and the situation whether it’s the exuberant, show-stopping If My Friends Could See Me Now or Where Am I Going? which she delivers in heartbreaking fashion.

She is beyond divine in the role; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Charity better.

Bryant brings this kind of truth to every aspect of the production. Character and emotion colour every song. Hey Big Spender erupts with the crowd-pleasing blast you expect but the girls look blank, emotionally shutdown, as they display their wares in the meat-market line-up.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Hunt-Ballard, Debora Krizak as Nickie and Kate Cole as Helene (two of the other girls from the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works) sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This it feels as exuberant as ever but tinged with palpable sadness: three feisty women, perilously close to being over the hill, knowing they will probably never escape this life.

Cole is new to the production and she is a great addition to the cast, bringing a real weight to the role of Helene.

Martin Crewes reprises the roles of Charlie, Vittorio Vidal and Oscar and again creates wonderfully delineated characters. His suave Vittorio is particularly strong and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with a lovely, classic Italianate tenor sound, then slides effortlessly into a nerdy, Jerry Lewis-tinged Oscar. In fact, his performance sits better in the larger space than in the tiny Hayes where it felt a tad outsized.

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

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

Krizak is once again a delight as the hard-boiled Nickie, nailing her fierce one-liners, and also as Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend.

As at the Hayes, the band – led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keys – sits along the back of the stage but it’s great to see them given more space and visibility. Worboys’ fantastic, funky, electronic orchestrations of the songs are again a winning, driving element of the production.

Bryant integrates the musicians into the production with Kuki Tipoki playing guitar as well as Big Daddy along with several ensemble roles, while Worboys plays Fandango owner Herman.

Original producers Luckiest Productions (Lisa Campbell, David Campbell and Richard Carroll) and Neil Gooding Productions are joined for the tour by Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean). They should have a huge hit on their hands.

This is one of the most exciting musical theatre productions I’ve seen in a long time: a show given fresh life and raw, gritty currency by a superb creative team and cast. It has made the leap to the larger space in style. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 8; The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 11 – 21; Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, February 25 – March 8; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, March 11 – 15