Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical

State Theatre, Sydney, April 6

GeorgyGirl2

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.

GeorgyGirl

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.

GeorgyGirl60

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

Advertisements

Hey, there Georgy girl!

Pippa Grandison wasn’t interested in imitating Judith Durham, but in trying to find her spirit for Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical 

GeorgyGirl

Pippa Grandison with Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft as The Seekers in the musical Georgy Girl. Photo: Jeff Busby

 

When Pippa Grandison’s agent asked her if she was interested in auditioning for the role of Judith Durham in Georgy Girl, the new musical about The Seekers, she did some quick research, not knowing a great deal about them.

“I’d been hiding up in Terrigul being a mum for a while and not coming out for anything that didn’t really interest me or that took me away for too long from my family,” says Grandison who has a seven-year old daughter.

“I had a (listen) and I thought ‘I really do like that style of music’. And I looked on YouTube and saw Judith and I talked to my husband (actor Steve Le Marquand) and we both thought ‘gosh, there was something there’ (a similar quality). So I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go, throw my hat into the ring,’” says Grandison.

Several auditions later, Grandison was one of four girls in final contention for the role and desperately wanted it.

“The third audition was in Melbourne. They flew me down and the other girls were so fantastic. We could all hear each other, which was disconcerting. I came home and thought I did well but that I wasn’t going to get it, maybe because I wanted it so much and I started grieving,” says Grandison.

When the call finally came to say that the part was hers, she couldn’t believe it.

“It was so exciting. For two days I was jumping around the house with my husband and child,” recalls Grandison. “On the third day I got up and went ‘oh my gosh! What have I done? I’ve got to do it now. This is huuuuuge!’”

Grandison’s many musical theatre credits include Elphaba in Wicked, Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, The Witches of Eastwick and We Will Rock You. She is currently on screen in the Channel Nine comedy series Here Come the Habibs! playing the well-heeled best friend of Olivia, the Habib’s appalling, antagonistic neighbour.

Georgy Girl premiered in Melbourne in December, and Grandison has received warm praise for her portrayal of the golden-voiced Durham.

Written by Durham’s brother-in-law Patrick Edgeworth, the show tells the story of The Seeker’s incredible rise to fame in the 1960s and Durham’s decision to leave the group just four years later as the US beckoned. It also covers her 25-marriage to pianist Ron Edgeworth and The Seeker’s sold-out 25th anniversary and 50th anniversary reunion tours.

Featuring their hit songs The Carnival is Over, I’ll Never Find Another You, A World of Our Own, Morningtown Ride, I am Australia and the Oscar-nominated Georgy Girl, the show arrives in Sydney in April.

pippa-grandison-298436-wfrpowwsrjlc

Pippa Grandison. Photo: supplied

Grandison got a chance to spent time with Durham on the publicity trail when the musical was first announced and soaked it all in.

“The first time I really started to get to know her was when we were being interviewed together and I just sat and watched and listened and learned so much about it. We do have some kind of a connection,” says Grandison.

“I can’t imagine the feeling of having someone play you. I wasn’t quite sure how she would respond to me but she’s very open, warm and encouraging. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn but I think she’s happy with my portrayal of her, and our portrayal of her story. She sent me a beautiful card and some flowers on opening night. It’s such an honour to be able to play her.”

Grandison says she wasn’t interested in doing an imitation of Durham – “and thankfully neither were the creative team. I think an imitation would be disrespectful to her and the fans really. Their memories are so precious and her voice has something so unique.

“I’ve obviously worked the voice so that I can get similar sounds but there will never be another Judith Durham so I just want to get the spirit of her.”

Grandison says that she and Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft who play the other members of The Seekers worked really hard in rehearsals on getting their voices to blend and create a similar sound to the original band.

“We all really wanted to get that right: listening to each other and no-one singing over the top of each other. Once you get into the theatre it changed because you don’t hear each other like you do when you are just sitting around a room singing because you don’t get the fold back and in different spots it’s really hard to hear each other so you just have to hold on to that memory and listen to each other as much as you can.”

Watching her during the media interviews they did together, Grandison says she was struck by how calm Durham is.

“I noticed particularly how present she is. She has a stillness about her. It’s quite intense but it’s a soft, gentle energy. She’s very present and she listens intently and focuses you. She meets your gaze and she stays there.”

This is only the second time Grandison has originated a role in a brand new musical – in 1988 she took on the title role in David King and Nick Enright’s musical Mary Bryant at the Ensemble – and she says it is “a tremendous experience”.

“I think we are all really proud that it’s an Australian production, it’s an Australian story and it’s an Australian cast. It’s a dream come true. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the opportunity again. It is really special. Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she says.

“I’ve never been in a show where the response has been so wonderful. You look out during the show and there are people singing along or laughing or crying or sharing memories together and at the end they are on their feet cheering. I think all of us at the end of the show come off going ‘wow!’ every time.”

Georgy Girl plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until March 20. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849. State Theatre, Sydney, April 2 – June 5. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 21