Miracle City review (Sydney Opera House, The Studio)

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Miracle City has taken a long road to its own promised land: the Sydney Opera House.

The Australian musical, penned by composer Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright, started its life in a now legendary sold-out workshop staging directed by Gale Edwards at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996.

The musical received a rapturous response and was due to transfer to the Opera House in the coming years, but Lambert, Enright and Edwards all became involved in bigger projects, including the hit homegrown jukebox musical The Boy from Oz. When Enright died in 2003, hopes of reviving the work seemed to die with him.

In 2014, Lambert was finally convinced by the emergence of musical theatre powerhouse, the Hayes Theatre, to revisit Miracle City. Now the musical has finally made it to the Opera House in a new production directed by Darren Yap.

The musical follows Ricky (Gus Murray) and Lora Lee Truswell (Kellie Rode), an apparently successful televangelist husband and wife team, inspired by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

They’re facing extraordinary financial struggles, but will stop at nothing to see their dream Christian theme park — the “Miracle City” of the title — built for the glory of God. Their earthly saviour seems to come in the form of the much older and wealthier preacher Millard Sizemore (Anthony Phelan), but this Man of God is not entirely what he seems, and wants something in return for his financial support.

In an age of Trumps and Weinsteins, and the widespread revelation of horrific abuses in religious organisations, the musical remains unfortunately resonant.

Enright’s book and lyrics are superb and brimming over with wit and insight as he tears apart the perfect world crafted for these characters in just 90 minutes of hypocrisy, delusion, and some very fabulous gospel music.

Yap, who also directed the 2014 production at the Hayes, hasn’t quite overcome the awkward space of the Opera House’s Studio for this production — and the thrust stage configuration isn’t properly exploited by James Browne’s design — but it remains emotionally resonant.

Miracle City unfolds in real time, during one of the Truswell family’s broadcast. There’s trouble behind the scenes, but they mostly manage to keep the show together, as they preach and procure pledges from those viewers at home.

As things fall apart with the velocity of a roller coaster screaming down its first drop, so does Lora Lee’s impression of her husband and the world they’ve built together.

Rode is a wonderful and sweet-voiced Lora Lee, managing to devolve from a larger-than-life picture of Christian womanhood to a scared and very small, real woman. Murray’s singing is a little underpowered and uncertain, but he proves himself to be a charismatic preacher and a good match for Rode.

As the three Citadel Singers, Josie Lane, Lara Mulcahy and pop singer Missy Higgins make an unusual and not always entirely cohesive trio. Mulcahy is often wryly funny, Lane is infectiously enthusiastic with a killer voice, and Higgins is quite good in her musical theatre debut, leaning into the anxious energy of her character as a “saved” young mother with a drug problem.

The production at the Hayes was blessed with Marika Aubrey leading the Citadel Singers, and without her huge and soulful voice, the show is lacking a lot of its musical drive.

Miracle City is largely about the tension between artifice and reality, and the razzle-dazzle of organised religion that seduces billions of people around the world. In the musical, that extraordinary gospel sound is key to that seduction, and despite Max Lambert’s bright and tight band bringing his wonderful compositions to life, this production needs a little more vocal power, particularly in numbers like Raise the Roof.

But Higgins injects some much-needed musical soul into the show with an emotionally resonant rendition of I’ll Hold On. It’s this song — unquestionably the best showstopper ever written for an Australian musical — that’s kept the dream of this great musical alive for so long.

Despite a few shortcomings in this production, it remains a genuinely excellent piece of satirical musical theatre, able to thrill and rattle its audience in equal measure.

Miracle City is at the Sydney Opera House Studio until October 28. Featured image: Branco Gaica

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