Sydney Festival Review: Ladies in Black is light, bright and fun (Performances to 22 January)

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Based on the novel The Women in Black, by Madeline St John, Ladies in Black is that all too rare thing: an entirely new Australian musical. There is no mistaking the country in which this show is set – from the home-grown accents to the local suburbs referenced in the text, this is a musical that lovingly cherishes everything that makes us true blue. And for that reason you can overlook the few musical miss-steps and overlong first act and just enjoy something a little bit nice, different and unusual.

The show follows the lives of the women who work the sales floor of F.G. Goodes department store, located in Sydney’s CBD. We join the action as wide-eyed wannabe poet, Leslie/Lisa, is about to take a temp position at Goodes over the summer while she waits for her final school results.

Against the familiarity of Elizabeth Street, the Hyde Park fountain and the ferries on Circular Quay, Ladies in Black reminds us that just over 50 years ago, a Sydney woman’s place was most definitely in the home. Higher education was a man’s game, and the ultimate mark of female success was to secure a husband and grow a family.

But this show is not intended as hard-hitting social criticism – it’s a light hearted musical in the style of My Fair Lady. Sure, the issues of sexism, racism and consumerism raise their ugly heads, but they’re beaten down joyfully by song, dance and flat-bat humour. It’s an inspired choice as a headliner in Wesley Enoch’s first Sydney Festival, in which he aims to showcase the stories of our home.

cast-of-ladies-in-black-3-credit-lisa-tomasettiAlthough this is primarily a story about shy Leslie’s transformation into stylish, confident Lisa – a familiar coming-of-age tale – what makes the script most interesting is the attention given by writer Carolyn Burns to the supporting characters.

Among the ladies in black are Fay (Ellen Simpson), whose Mr Right is surely right around the corner, and Patty (Madeline Jones) whose marriage to her own Mr Right seems to be going very wrong. Then there is Magda, the ‘Crazy Continental’ (Natalie Gamsu) whose fearsome and frigid at-work persona gives way to an exuberant, stylish fairy god-mother. And not to be out-done, the scene-stealing, mysterious Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) who has worked at Goodes longer than most of the girls have been alive.

The first thing you notice about this show is the accents. With Australian stages dominated by Broadway musicals, the ocker-twang employed by the Ladies in Black cast takes a little getting used to. But just as one’s ear becomes attuned to Shakespeare’s flowery poetry after a few scenes, it only takes one or two songs before you settle into the flat, nasal tones of our native tongue.

In fact, even the laid-back, ‘she’ll be right’ Aussie attitude comes through in the delivery of the songs, with many performers opting for speak-sing over full belt, and an appropriately droll delivery of the many one-liners peppering Tim Finn’s compositions. The Aussie affect is put to greatest use in the bluntly-titled, Bastard Song, a genuine comedic highlight (and featuring a terrific tea-set tango).

kathryn-mcintyre-kate-cole-madeline-jones-carita-farrer-spencer-credit-lisa-tomasettiFinn’s first go at writing a musical is not bad, although at times the musical exposition is a little repetitive. This, and a lack of truly big, hummable song and dance numbers make the first act drag somewhat, but the pace is rectified in the much punchier second act. Notable numbers include the fashionable Ladies in Black, afore-mentioned Bastard Song and the cheeky I Just Kissed a Continental.

There are only eleven in the cast, with many performers doubling up on roles. While an interesting choice by director Simon Phillips, this does impact on the ‘big’ numbers, making them feel a little underdone. It would be interesting to see how this show would play out with a significantly increased cast; certainly there would be greater opportunity for dance breaks and more frenetic crowd scenes.

Newcomer Sarah Morrison does well inhabiting the role of shy bookworm Lisa, although audiences may expect a little more vocal power given she carries the majority of songs. Simpson (Fay) and Jones (Patty) bounce off each other beautifully as the unlucky-in-love cocktail frock sales girls, and it is their story lines that really steal the show. As Magda, Gamsu is poised and confident and helps to keep the energy alive. Bobby Fox (one of just three men in the cast) is terrific but never really gets to let his beautiful vocals loose (despite playing three characters).

The other leading ladies in the show are the costumes, designed by Gabriela Tylesova. They are well researched and impeccably presented. The model gowns, in particular, are worthy of their royal treatment, revolving into view like graceful dancers engaged in a solo waltz.

madeline-jones-ellen-simpson-natalie-gamsu-credit-lisa-tomasettiTylesova clearly loves a revolve – there are three making up the Ladies in Black stage. Sitting atop the revolves are statuesque mirrored pillars that aptly conjure the luxe interior of the department stores of yesteryear. Between these pillars glide basic furniture pieces that help to create the various locales, and wafting blue curtains are drawn partially across the stage to produce new entrances and exits. Overall the effect is flowing and feminine, but at times the pillars are a bit distracting and block some of the performers.

At the rear of the stage hidden behind a scrim is the band, who are periodically lit into view to highlight certain musical numbers. They handle the various musical styles with ease and the featured rock guitar is a nice touch. The band does a lot of the heavy lifting in driving the tension (mostly through increasing volume) and also provide some lovely atmospheric background music, particularly during the pre-Christmas sales period (even if some of us are sick of carols by now).

Like the taffeta and chiffon skirts that adorned the hangers of Goodes, Ladies in Black is light, bright and fun. There are enough local jokes to keep you chuckling at the dialogue (including a dig at Melbourne which will tickle Sydney-siders) and a number of delightful theatrical moments, like the opening number of the second act, On a Summer Afternoon, featuring exquisitely presented bathing attire (and a cute little sight gag from the orchestra). Unfortunately, these moments are interspersed with some less-than stellar songs, making the show feel unnecessarily drawn out. The cast and band work hard to keep the momentum going and there is still a lot to like here, but the Sydney production of Ladies in Black just doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the Brisbane and Melbourne seasons.

Ladies in Black is playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre (Star Casino) as part of the Sydney Festival until 22nd January. For tickets, go HERE.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 6th January, 2017.

Photo credit Lisa Tomasetti.