Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical

State Theatre, Sydney, April 6

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Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Pippa Grandison and Glaston Toft as The Seekers. Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

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Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Pippa Grandison and Glaston Toft. Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

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The cast of Georgy Girl in Carnaby Street attire. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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Blood Brothers

Hayes Theatre Co, February 10

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.

Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.

Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.

Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.

Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.

Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.

Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.

It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.

Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.

Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.

The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.

Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15

Beyond Desire

Hayes Theatre Co, November 26

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

In development off-and-on for 25 years, the musical Beyond Desire finally has its world premiere at the Hayes Theatre Co. It’s by no means an unqualified success but the music is lovely, with potential for further development of the show as a whole.

Written by Neil Rutherford (book and lyrics) and Kieran Drury (music), Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery inspired by Hamlet, with elements of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a healthy dash of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

There’s also a cute Mousetrap-like coda in which the cast ask you – in song – not to reveal the mystery. To be honest, it’s fairly easy to guess what’s going on in the first act and though the show takes a few more surprising twists and turns in the second, not all are convincing.

Beyond Desire is essentially an entertainment: a melodrama lightly laced with serious themes including class and forbidden love.

Set in 1910, Anthony (Blake Bowden) is holidaying in Italy having just graduated from university when he receives a telegram from his mother Louise (Chloe Dallimore). His father Edward (Phillip Lowe) has been found dead in a London hotel room.

The police rule it a suicide but Anthony is suspicious, particularly since Louise marries Edward’s former business partner George (Tony Cogin) shortly afterwards. What’s more, George figures prominently in Edward’s will.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Together with his university friend James (Ross Hannaford) – who has arrived at the behest of Louise – the melancholic, angry Anthony sets out to discover what really happened.

Making up the household are the housekeeper Mrs Milson (Nancye Hayes) who makes sure she knows everyone’s business, her daughter Emily (Christy Sullivan) who is a maid, and a manservant Syd (David Bulters).

The music, which combines an Edwardian feel with contemporary resonances (Sondheim, Wildhorn, Schonberg & Boublil), is beautiful and emotive. The arrangements for piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet and horn are lush and sensitively performed by the six-piece band led by musical director Peter Rutherford.

The lyrics, however, are uneven, verging on workmanlike at times, rarely revealing psychological depth. For the most part, the characters sing about the situation they’re in, without adding a great deal more to what we already know.

A poignant duet between Emily and James about their respective love for Anthony is one of the exceptions and a highlight.

Having chosen to present an Edwardian melodrama, Rutherford could have had more fun with the genre and also sharpened the book to build more tension in a show that revolves around deception and secrets. Instead, it’s a bit of an uneasy mix, with audiences not quite sure at times whether they are meant to be laughing or taking it all very seriously.

Rutherford also directs. In fact, his hand is all over the production. Take a good look at the names of the set designer (Luther Forinder) and orchestrator (Leon Ferrithurd).

The costuming is excellent (presumably borrowed as there is no costume design credit). The set isn’t wildly attractive but it works OK in the small space, quickly reforming into various configurations for different settings – though with the band sitting behind, it does all look rather cramped. The lighting meanwhile (Nicholas Rayment) is somewhat heavy-handed.

The production boasts impressive performances from the entire cast. The singing is terrific – though the sound is over-amplified. And the underscoring is sometimes distracting, making it difficult to hear dialogue.

Hayes is outstanding as Mrs Milson, understanding the melodrama style instinctively and bringing just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek fun to her portrayal. It’s a hugely enjoyable, precisely judged comic performance – and a delight to see her making her debut in the theatre that has been named in her honour.

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

She is matched by a winning performance from Sullivan as the young maid Emily, which feels truthful and heartfelt (accent and all), while Bowden is in glorious voice as Anthony. But all the cast have their moments.

Despite the flaws, I still found the show entertaining. It’s refreshing to be taken into a different kind of musical world to the ones we have been seeing on our stages of late. The tone could do with finessing and some tightening would sharpen it (it runs around two hours and 45 minutes including interval) but there is potential for further work.

The theatre program, presented as a 1910 London newspaper, is a nice little touch.

Beyond Desire runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until December 14. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30

 

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28