Wonderful Town

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8

WT Promo-90

Virginia Gay and Georgina Walker who played sisters Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town. Photo: supplied

I didn’t see the semi-staged concert version of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing at the Sydney Opera House in November – the first collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre – but I heard good things.

I was, however, lucky enough to catch the second of two performances of Wonderful Town, their second collaboration– and what a complete delight it was.

Wonderful Town is an effervescent, light-hearted musical comedy featuring a joyous, melodic score by Leonard Bernstein. Written in six weeks in 1953 (nine years after Bernstein’s first musical On the Town), it mixes classical, popular and jazz musical styles, including the electric, syncopated Wrong Note Jazz, which foreshadowed West Side Story three years later.

The show had its roots in a series of short stories written by author/journalist Ruth McKenney published in the New Yorker magazine about her experiences and the colourful characters she and her sister Eileen met when they lived in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. These evolved into a book in 1938 called My Sister Eileen, which was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell.

The musical, Wonderful Town, features a well-structured book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and neat, witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It opened on Broadway in 1953, also starring Rosalind Russell, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. A good, old-fashioned musical comedy, it has such charm that it’s surprising it’s so little known.

Set in the 1930s, it focuses on two sisters who leave a backwater in Ohio for the bright lights and broader horizons of New York. Ruth, who is hoping to become a writer, is smart, strong and protective of her younger sister Eileen yet awkward when it comes to men. Eileen, who has men falling at her feet, dreams of being a performer.

Jason Langley directs with great clarity on a minimal set (a few flats, the odd table and chair). Designer Brendan Hay has added plenty of colour and period style with his costuming including elegant frocks for the ladies and some natty, patterned trousers for the men.

Dean Vince has done a great job with the choreography which ranges from a hilarious Irish jig (complete with a wash of green lighting) to a conga and some snazzy jazz moves.

Virginia Gay is an absolute star as Ruth. She has such a perfect feel for this style of musical comedy, caressing the tunes with lovely, smooth vocals and landing all the humour with immaculate timing . She brings the house down with Ruth’s comic song 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, a very funny but pointed number that you can imagine others picking up to perform in cabaret. Acting wise she captures Ruth’s intelligence, independent spirit and sardonic sense of humour as well as her lack of confidence with men

Newcomer Georgina Walker, who recently graduated from WAAPA, has a nice bright soprano and a perky presence as Eileen. Making her professional mainstage debut in Wonderful Town, she shows great promise.

Scott Irwin shows his versatility in several roles including Bob Barker, the assistant editor who falls for Ruth without realising it at first, and their landlord Mr Appopulous, a self-regarding, pompous artist. A fine singer and actor, Irwin is the perfect foil to Gay as the decent Bob and sings numbers such as “It’s Love” and “Quiet Girl” with an effortless charm.

Aside from Gay and Walker, all the cast – which also includes Scott Morris, Dean Vince, Nicholas Starte, Megan Wilding and Beth Daly – play several parts There is one hilarious moment where Irwin walks off stage as one character and comes straight back on as another to the delight of the audience. Conductor Brett Weymark even plays a cameo role as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti from the podium.

The choir, sitting in the choir stalls and boxes on either side of the stage, are all dressed in their own outfits of red, black and white. Langley involves them in the action by having them do some bopping, arm-waving choreography from their seats. He also has a few of them come on stage in crowd scenes which is a bit messy but it does generate a lovely sense of community involvement.

The orchestra plays with exuberant gusto under Weymark, serving up an exciting big band sound, and there are plenty of ear-worms in the score most notably the gorgeous, lilting It’s Love – in fact, half the audience seemed to be singing It’s Love as they left the theatre, big smiles on their faces.

This kind of collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic is a great initiative, giving us the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical in a semi-staged production with an orchestra, a large choir and a top cast (performing off book).

Together with Neglected Musicals – who are already doing a great job of presenting small-scale rehearsed readings of rarely seen musicals, performed book in hand at the intimate Hayes Theatre Co – it’s a very welcome addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Advertisements

High Society

Hayes Theatre Co, September 7

Amy Lehpamer and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer, sizzling in red, and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

High Society is set in the palatial home of rich socialites complete with swimming pool: quite a challenge in a 111-seat theatre.

But, true to form, the Hayes Theatre Co production solves it ingeniously. Set designer Lauren Peters has come up with four elegant, moveable arches and a clever reveal for the party scene. Lucetta Stapleton’s 1930s costuming, a few props and some sound effects (Jeremy Silver) are enough to complete the picture, along with Gavan Swift’s lighting.

The 1998 stage musical is based on the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. It has a very funny script by Arthur Kopit and songs by Cole Porter, some of which were in the movie, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Well, Did you Evah! and True Love, along with others of his that weren’t. Not all the lyrics relate as well as they might to the situation but overall it works a treat.

It’s the eve of Tracy Lord’s wedding to the rather pompous, dull George Kittredge. However, her younger sister Dinah is determined that Tracy remarry her first husband CK Dexter Haven, who turns up unexpectedly with a pair of reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie.

Helen Dallimore directs with a sure, light touch, telling the story with great clarity, while Cameron Mitchell’s choreography suits the period. In another ingenious touch, Dallimore uses a quartet led by musical director Daryl Wallis whose jazzy arrangements of the score work brilliantly.

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer positively glows as Tracy: glamorous, tough and very funny when drunk, her singing, acting and dancing all perfectly pitched. Virginia Gay is sensational as Liz, who is quietly in love with Mike. Her comic timing is impeccable, her performance is full of delicious, surprising little details (the way she hesitates to articulate the word ‘you’ when singing “All I want is you” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? just one of many) and she knows exactly how to deliver the songs.

Bobby Fox convincingly conveys Mike’s gradual softening as he falls for Tracy in a charismatic performance, while Bert LaBonté is an understated, rather melancholic Dexter whose charm grows on you.

Along the rest of the exceptionally strong cast, there are well judged comic performance from Scott Irwin as George, Jessica Whitfield as Dinah and Laurence Coy as the lecherous uncle Willy, while Delia Hannah is lovely as Tracy’s mother. All in all, divine.

High Society plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 3. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 13

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Hayes Theatre Co, May 14

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

You can see why Tim Freedman’s songs appealed to playwright Alex Broun as the inspiration for a musical. Not only do they have beautiful melodies and pithy lyrics that ring emotionally true but a strong sense of narrative and character, written as they were about real people, places and incidents.

Broun co-wrote his new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You with Freedman (frontman of Sydney rock band The Whitlams) and uses 19 Whitlams classic including “No Aphrodisiac”, “Blow Up the Pokies”, “Keep the Light On”, “Beauty in Me” and the “Charlie” series.

Set in Newtown’s grungy pub scene, 20-year old Tom (Ross Chisari) arrives from Taree with a letter from his Mum, in search of Anton (Ian Stenlake) and Charlie (Scott Irwin), former members of a band in which his dead father Stewie (Toby Francis in flashback scenes) once played.

“Famous on three blocks” in Sydney’s inner west in their heyday, Anton and Charlie are now wrestling with demons and rapidly going to seed. Tom meets a girl called Beatrice (Erica Lovell) who is also searching for herself, having fled Mosman. The encounter between the four leads, predictably enough, to revelations from the past and the possibility of healing.

Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Hayes Theatre Co, there’s much to enjoy about the production. It’s well staged and performed, the band led by musical director Andrew Worboys is terrific and the songs are great, but Broun’s script is not strong enough for the show to really take off.

Broun draws on Freedman’s themes of male friendship, lost love, disappointment and emotional damage but the characters and plot aren’t developed enough at this point for the climax to convince.

The writing is often perfunctory and never quite rises above the feeling that scenes are contrived to fit the musical numbers. The meeting between Tom and Beatrice, in particular, is clichéd and glib. In fact, the entire story of Tom and Beatrice is far less interesting than the story of the band yet it’s fore-grounded. The scenes about the band – which are the best written and performed – are the ones where we feel ourselves being suddenly drawn in and wanting to know more.

Staged as if in a grotty inner-city pub, Jackson Browne’s set design (lit by Richard Neville) provides just the right vibe. There’s a band set-up on a high stage, backed by all kinds of signs. The stage moves backwards to create room in front of it for various other scenes with simple props sliding out from underneath. It’s a clever solution in the tiny venue.

The actors work hard to bring the show to life. Stenlake as the shambolic, hard-drinking Anton, now letting it all hang out, and Irwin as the pokies-addicted Charlie are particularly impressive, both acting-wise and vocally, the scenes between them some of the most moving.

In the short time that it has been operating, the Hayes has already proved itself an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene and it’s great to see them providing a launch pad for new local musicals like this. Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You still needs work but it’s well worth a look. There’s already much to enjoy about it and there’s plenty of potential for it to be honed into something even better.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 1. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 19