When it comes to major arts festivals, it’s not unusual to see pieces of theatre thrown into venues that are less than ideal. Almost every performance space in Sydney is full during January, so it’s understandable that a relatively intimate piece of musical theatre might end up in a venue like the 2000-seat Lyric Theatre.
But I suspect Carolyn Burns and Tim Finn’s sweet slice of nostalgia Ladies in Black has lost much of its zing in the move to bigger venues. The new Australian musical, based on Madeleine St John’s light but lovely novel The Women in Black, had its world premiere in Brisbane in 2015, and a very successful Melbourne season in early 2016.
The show went on to win the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work last year and, judging by its Sydney premiere as part of Sydney Festival, it’s difficult to see why. It’s sweetly bland at its best and inept at its worst.
Ladies in Black follows the bright and young Lisa (Sarah Morrison), who takes on a temporary summer job at a David Jones-esque Sydney-based department store called Goodes, while she waits to hear her results for her school leaving certificate. She’s a dreamer and a bookworm who wants to go to university and do something extraordinary, but this is the late 1950s and her father doesn’t believe his daughter needs higher education.
Lisa makes friends with the other sales assistants, some of whom are reaching their own lives’ crossroads: Patty’s (Madeleine Jones) marriage is pushed towards breaking point as she’s unable to conceive, while Fay (Ellen Simpson) is reaching her 30th birthday and growing tired of the conga line of dull Australian men entering and exiting her life.
But Lisa forms the closest connection with Magda (Natalie Gamsu), the glamorous Hungarian migrant who is the head of the Model Gowns department. Magda befriends Lisa, inspiring her and opening her eyes to other cultures on the path to womanhood.
Carolyn Burns’ book faithfully captures these characters’ journeys with heart and just enough wit to get across the line, even with an overlong first act. She also conveys most of the novel’s gentle gender politics and the tribute it pays to the resilience of these women.
Director Simon Phillips doesn’t quite manage to make this rather small story translate to the big world of musical theatre, but finds an appropriate pace, thanks largely to the slick revolves of designer Gabriela Tylesova’s set. It’s not the most attractive or visually engaging piece of theatre Phillips and Tylesova have created together, but everything functions together to tell the story with clarity.
It comes as no surprise that Split Enz and Crowded House legend Tim Finn writes some wonderful melodies for his first ever musical, and finds a precise and stylish musical voice for each of these characters. It’s mostly simple, toe-tapping and hummable fare, inspired by the story’s 1950s setting, with some interesting rhythmic ideas thrown in.
But the vast majority of the lyrics are either clunky, blunt or banal. The show features far too many overworked or dreadful rhymes (no, rhyming “bastard” with “custard” isn’t a decent punchline), instances of emotionally repressed characters simply baldly declaring their feelings, and moments in which the musical emphasis falls on an inappropriate lyric (“we get dressed out the back” becomes a grand declaration). The lyrics mostly work to propel the story forward and reveal the characters’ inner lives, but there’s one song which does nothing but restate what we’ve just seen in the previous scene.
There are some high points: the fast, overlapping patter song Sales Talk is wonderful, showing the sales assistants using their intelligence and skill to make their way through a rush of clients (this should’ve been our introduction to the women, not the title number), while a scene set at a wild New Years Eve party is gorgeously realised using just a monologue, silhouettes and some smart underscoring.
The dramatic performances are mostly very strong, led by Sarah Morrison. Natalie Gamsu and Greg Stone are brilliant as the old Hungarian married couple lapping up their Australian life, while Kate Cole, Madeleine Jones and Ellen Simpson provide great support.
The singing, on the other hand, is often sub-standard. The vocal performances are occasionally underpowered and there are some pitch problems, particularly early on. That singing might’ve been forgivable in smaller venues, but the voices are left very exposed in a big theatre.
When the show moves to Melbourne in February, it will play an even bigger venue in the Regent Theatre. It’s hard to believe this musical, which finds most of its charm in the intimacy of its story, will find a way of translating to a cavernous house by then.
Photo by Lisa Tomasetti