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Miracle City review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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Could a revival of Miracle City possibly live up to the work’s reputation? The 1996 original Australian musical written by Max Lambert and Nick Enright had an infamous and wildly successful development season at Sydney Theatre Company. But Lambert, Enright and Gale Edwards (who directed the original production) were all called to bigger things over the next few years, including The Boy From Oz and the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games, for Lambert. The musical was slated for further development with the promise that it would go on to bigger and better things, but when Enright died in 2003, the plans were abandoned. As the show has sat in Lambert’s desk draw for the last 18 years with no public outing, the hype around the work continued to grow and grow and it entered Australian musical theatre folklore as the “Great Lost Australian Musical“.

So when Lambert announced he would produce the musical for the first time in 18 years at the Hayes Theatre, anticipation was through the roof. It was going to have to practically be the second coming of Jesus to match its reputation. No wonder Lambert hasn’t let any theatre company produce the work until now.

Telling the story of the Truswell family (based on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker), Miracle City takes place backstage and on-stage in real-time over the course of a 90-minute televangelist broadcast. Preacher Ricky (Mike McLeish) and recording star Lora-Lee (Blazey Best) are the generous, glamorous couple every good Christian wants to be, while their children Loretta (Hilary Cole) and Cameron Holmes (Ricky-Bob) are the picture of Christian charity in the young ministry. Ricky and Lora-Lee plan to open their own theme park, “Miracle City”, because it’s God’s will. But it soon becomes clear that the family is in serious financial trouble and will have to sacrifice some of their values to make ends meet and save their own lives.

Enter Reverend Millard Sizemore (Peter Kowitz), Ricky’s former mentor, a wealthy, well-respected missionary with the power to save the Truswells. But Millard wants something in return and has his sights set on the 16-year-old Loretta.

With Darren Yap directing and a cast of Australian theatre and musical theatre’s finest (and the always energetic-but-tasteful Kelley Abbey as choreographer), the work comes up shining in the intimate space of the Hayes. The place is decked out like a low-budget TV studio, complete with a sparkling curtain which divides on-stage from backstage, and dressing tables to either side. It’s a simple and obviously cost-effective set design by Michael Hankin (lit beautifully by Hugh Hamilton), throwing the focus onto the performers and giving them the space to shine. When the harsh fluorescent lights come up at the end of the broadcast and reveal the almost entirely empty stage, our illusions, like the Truswell’s, are shattered.

This production’s heart and soul is Blazey Best, who delivers a sublime performance as a woman who is forced, for the first time, to go against her husband’s will to protect herself and her family. She’s all blonde hair and teeth and red-white-and-blue ’80s glamour (superbly costumed by Roger Kirk) as the show starts out, with her sweeter-than-sugar Southern accent and Dolly Parton-esque vocals, but Best eventually strips Lora-Lee back to her vulnerable core. The effect is heart-breaking.

As her husband Ricky, Mike McLeish is a perfectly charismatic preacher, but his ultimate shift in character tips towards melodrama, which clashes with Best’s simple, truthful take on Lora-Lee. The fault also lies in the book, which never quite gives him the internal conflict he needs — he makes a horrific decision and seems, more or less, fine with the implications.

As their daughter, who becomes a bargaining chip, Hilary Cole again shows her unique ability to delve into dark psychological places while singing angelically. Her little brother Ricky-Bob is played by the young Cameron Holmes, who gives a powerful vocal and dramatic performance, torn between his parents. Esther Hannaford also excels as Bonnie-Mae, a young, troubled mother in desperate need of a saviour.

Along with Hannaford, Josie Lane and Marika Aubrey turn in ferocious vocal performances as the “Citadel Singers”, bringing the gospel truth out of Lambert’s score, which uses various sounds of the church, from tambourine-clapping songs of praise to soulful ballads, all with stunning harmonies. It’s also catchy as hell with Lambert’s five-piece band rocking along, and it becomes impossible to stop yourself being swept up in your seat. This show really needs a cast recording.

When the lights come up and the roof-raising music has ended, Miracle City is a harsh look at what we choose to believe. It’s about the dangerous way our illusions can carry us away and the crushing reality that follows. As all good religious tales are, it’s an allegory — not for the dangers of religion, but for the “American Dream” and its victims. Post-GFC, it feels even more relevant today than it would have in 1996.

Enright’s work is not without its flaws — the tone can be slightly uneven and one plot twist hasn’t been smoothed over — but it’s often startlingly good. When a playwright like Enright brings his knack for dialogue, character and structure to the musical art form, something special happens. He’s also brave enough to leave the show with a single, stark image, with no song exploring the characters’ emotional state and no neat bow wrapping anything together.

Does it live up to its audience’s lofty, sky-high expectations? In a few ways, it falls short. But my god, it’s close!

Miracle City is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until 16 November. Featured image by Kurt Sneddon

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