In many ways the new musical Ladies in Black fits the mould of a traditional musical. Its costuming is meticulously themed, the song-and-dance sequences tightly choreographed, and the musical and lyrical themes tie it all together.
However, as 1950s Australia found itself emerging from the post-war period into an era of cultural change — so too does Ladies in Black straddle the traditional and new in its exploration of the shifting values of that time and place.
The musical’s success seems largely thanks to clever writing from book writer Carolyn Burns (adapting the Madeleine St John novel The Women in Black) and the music and lyrics by Tim Finn.
Finn’s compositions shift smoothly between traditional musical theatre and a more contemporary guitar-and-bass sound, a nod to his standing as one of Australia and New Zealand’s most treasured musical talents. Similarly, Burns’s dialogue shifts delicately between the carefully structured exposition of traditional musical theatre and some truly Australian vernacular.
This ebb and flow and Simon Phillip’s direction allows Ladies in Black to treat Australia’s cultural cringe with lightly ironic playfulness. The show clearly has no intention of delving deeply into the socio-economic landscape of Sydney in the 1950s, though it touches lightly on national identity, xenophobia and sexism.
It’s primarily a coming-of-age story, and a story about women. Lisa (Sarah Morrison) is awaiting the results of her leaving exams and starts in a temporary position at F. G. Goodes, a prestigious department store in Sydney.
Naïve and shy, Lisa dreams of attending university and writing poetry; she recites William Blake to fortify herself in times of apprehension and reminds herself of Joan of Arc and Elizabeth Bennett when considering what her future might hold.
Her fellow staff members include some “New Australians”, including the glamorous and exotic European refugee Magda (Christen O’Leary) who sings to Lisa about Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn.
Later, Magda’s literary husband Stefan (Greg Stone) plies Lisa with a copy of Middlemarch, enthusiastically explaining that George Eliot wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, but that such things are no longer necessary.
In lesser hands these overtures of feminist awakening might come across as clumsy and overwrought, but the cast under Phillips’ direction handles them with delicacy and well-executed humour.
In a particularly notable moment, Frank (Andrew Broadbent), husband of Lisa’s beleaguered colleague Patty (Lucy Maunder) finds himself drunk and morose, singing his sorrows while urinating emphatically in the pub toilet.
The scene, funny and sad, provides a brief but poignant insight into how the repression of the time impacted on both men and women. By contrast, the ensemble’s upbeat performance of She Just Kissed a Continental comes to the audience tongue firmly in cheek, a gentle but insistent jab at Australia’s post-war xenophobia.
The “Continentals” themselves, Magda, Stefan and their friend Rudi (Bobby Fox) — refugees from Hungary — are largely responsible for cracking Lisa’s small-town world open.
Harbingers of style and culture, they introduce her to scarves, dancing and strange new foods. Their portrayal is light — the show doesn’t really have time to explore the difficulties of being a “reffo” in post-war Sydney — but this feels like a conscious choice.
The set design by Gabriela Tylesova is deceptively simple. Glass and mirror pillars dot the stage, evoking the shiny glitz of a department store shop floor. The mirrors cleverly reveal the faces of characters in profile, and the floor has three revolving platforms that facilitate in-scene set changes and creative choreography.
Behind all of this is a six-piece band on stage for the duration of the show, led by musical director Isaac Hayward. They are seen behind a sheer curtain or underneath striped umbrellas in a beach scene as the action takes place in the foreground, but are never intrusive.
Ladies in Black is a deceptively light examination of a turning point in Australia’s history carried by a highly accomplished cast and creative team.