Theatre Review: Melba lifts the veil by celebrating Australia’s great dame (at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre to September 9th)

From little things big things grow. Paul Kelly could have sung this about Australia’s very own, Dame Nellie Melba. This famous soprano grew up with rather modest beginnings before she forged her own fabulous career. She eventually took the world by storm and become a renowned opera diva. The Hayes Theatre are playing host to the world premiere of Melba, a luminescent, musical theatre show about one of Australia’s most celebrated singers and cultural icons.

Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond Victoria in 1861. She was the eldest daughter of a Scottish builder named David Mitchell and his wife, Isabella Ann. In 1882 Melba would marry a violent and manipulative drunk named Charles Armstrong. Their marriage was troubled from the start. Thankfully, Melba showed some promise when playing the piano and organ in Australia, so she decided to venture to Paris and audition for the acclaimed vocal coach, Madame Marchesi (a sometimes over-the-top, Genevieve Lemon.) Marchesi proclaimed Melba a star and convinced her to change her name (Melba was a tribute to the singer’s hometown of Melbourne.)

This production is written by Nicholas Christo and is based on the book, Marvellous Melba by Ann Blainey. It’s a show that blends together contemporary musical theatre with new songs by composer, Johannes Luebbers, as well as some of the famous arias that Melba sang during her illustrious career. The latter pack a dramatic punch and are performed by Australian soprano, Emma Matthews who is a highly accomplished singer and diva in her own right.

Matthews is a veritable powerhouse whose voice fills the Hayes’ intimate setting. She plays the established Melba while Annie Aitken (The Sound of Music) plays the younger Nellie. The latter is a courageous and determined youngster who wants to pursue her dreams and hone her talents. These ideas are completely at odds with the prevailing societal norms at the time. As a woman, Melba was supposed to play the role of the good wife by obeying her husband (Andrew Cutliffe) and raising their child. A career wasn’t even on the cards for the majority of women.

Melba had one son, George. He is played here by Samuel Skuthorp who does a fine job and makes his professional acting debut. Skuthorp plays the older George while the younger versions of this character see Skuthorp manipulating a weird puppet. This is a strange addition to the proceedings when you consider that everything else seems to be very much grounded in realism. To watch the puppet and Skuthorp in matching sailor outfits is bizarre, especially because the puppet has such a strong, masculine face that seems completely at odds with the youth and innocence the character is supposed to embody. All of this was a creative misstep.

The bulk of Melba is pitched around the diva’s 1902 home-coming concert at the Melbourne Town Hall. This plot device enables Matthews to sing arias that Melba was famous for, including excerpts from La Traviata and Tosca, among others. These are interwoven with Melba’s story, starting with her audition in Paris and through the disintegration of her marriage and her passionate love affair with the French heir to the throne (Adam Rennie (Big Fish)). The ensemble is also rounded out by Caitlin Berry who does a fantastic job juggling multiple roles as well as Blake Erickson and Michael Beckley.

It is obvious that Melba’s story was no bed of roses, even though plenty of these were thrown at her feet at her shows. They are also used here by production designer Mark Thompson to decorate the stage. The set design here is tight and makes this space seem even smaller than it already is. The centrepiece is a tilted, circular stage where headlines and concert bills are presented to set the scene. The lighting by Trudy Dalgleish occasionally draws the audience’s attention to some silhouettes of the more larger-than-life characters; and the costumes and chairs are fitting for the Victorian period.

Melba is a show that lifts the veil on Australia’s great dame to celebrate her public and private lives in equal measure. Melba ultimately proves that the diva’s life was one filled with tragedy and triumph and this show does not gloss-over or sugar-coat any of the darker aspects in this tale. It’s a production that captures her inspirational, pioneering spirit and independence thanks to two strong female leads and a proficient ensemble. Melba’s story is a fascinating one that was long-overdue for the theatre because she’s such a complex and interesting character whose talent and charm means that even today her star still shines bright like a diamond.

MELBA has been developed through New Musicals Australia, and plays at Hayes Theatre Co until September 9th. For tickets and more details, head HERE

The reviewer attended the production on August 17th.