Theatre Review: Miracle City is a colourful & spirited musical about some kooky televangelists (Sydney Opera House until Oct 29th)

Miracle City is not your typical musical. The show’s director even dubbed it an anti-musical. It’s what you get when the shiny veneer of a Christian family of televangelists implode, live on air. The results are something that are ironic, funny and tragic in almost equal measure.

This show first premiered at Sydney Theatre in 1996. Its soundtrack was composed by Max Lambert who would go on to work on the Sydney Olympic ceremonies. The script was written by Nick Enright and was inspired by Jim and Tammy Bakker. The show was widely-acclaimed upon debut, but Lambert and Enright became busy shortly afterwards when The Boy From Oz became a major hit. Miracle City remained shelved until a production at the Hayes Theatre in 2014. Both this reprisal and the current run at the Opera House were directed by Darren Yap.

This story is set in Tennessee during the early nineties at the peak of the Televangelism craze. The show plays out in real-time during what is supposed to be a live-to-air TV show by the evangelical group, Miracle of Ministries. The story is an ironic one that showcases some big contrasts between the on-stage personae and the off-stage ones. There are some big, show-stopping gospel numbers sung by the Citadel singers (Josie Lane reprising her 2014 role, Lara Mulcahy (Mamma Mia!) and singer-songwriter, Missy Higgins who is making her musical theatre stage debut.) The real motivations of the characters are revealed in the dialogue and often expose the sinister side lurking beyond the saccharine smiles.

The family here are the Truswells and they are led by their smooth-talking pastor patriarch Ricky (Gus Murray (The Great Gatsby)). Ricky has a vision of building a Christian theme park that will allow his followers to assemble to pray and play. He is also celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary to his beautifully-attired and well-coiffed wife, Lora Lee (Kellie Rode (Mamma Mia!)) Loretta sounds a like Dolly Parton, which is a tad disconcerting. They also have two enthusiastic and devoted young children, 16 year old Loretta (Jessica Vickers) and Ricky-Bob (with Finn Bradley and Louis Fontine alternating the role.)

The Truswells may put on a good show to their devotees but they are actually in some serious trouble. Ricky has racked up millions in debt on their projects and the only way out of this hole is to accept some financial assistance from a crooked Pentecostal pastor named Millard Sizemore (a devilish, Anthony Phelan.) This proposal is where things really unravel and belly the clean-cut presentation of their family show. This change in direction is a swift one and could have used a little more development; the same can also be said about Ricky Truswell’s true motivations. These few things would’ve made the show perfect.

Missy Higgins does a fine job here playing a drug-addicted young woman and mother who has just lost her child because the youngster has been placed into care. “I’ll Hold On” is a heartfelt and spirited ballad and an absolute highlight of the show that is worth the price of admission alone. It’s also one of the few moments of real clarity when everything else had been smoke and mirrors or at least a clean, white-washed cookie-cutter view of the Christian world up until that point. Higgins also shares a great chemistry with her soul sisters in the choir who sing and dance up a storm.

This production makes great use of the space. It has two pieces that alternate between the back-stage area and two stairways to heaven that serve as pulpits. These are also manoeuvred at times to create a backdrop of Church arches. It’s a simple and highly effective way to visually exhibit the Christian setting, even if the characters don’t necessarily espouse these ideals. The music is a keen mix of Gospel, country, folk and some poppy, toe-tapping numbers. These songs often keep the mood light and buoyant even when darker and more sinister revelations are exposed.

Miracle City is a sharp and clever show that is full of some interesting twists. It is also one that feels as relevant today as it did on its debut. An energetic and vibrant production, it’s a cautionary tale that forces us to consider things beyond their looks in order to discover one’s true colours and intentions. When the masks come off, you get to the raw and brutally honest truth and it is these revelations that will leave you singing hallelujah, amen!

Photo Credit: Branco Gaica

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The brand new production of Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s celebrated Australian musical Miracle City takes over the Sydney Opera House Studio from 12 – 29 October. For tickets and more details head HERE.

The reviewer attended the performance on October 14.