Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre)
QPAC, The Playhouse
January 28 – February 19
The critically acclaimed “Ladies in Black” features over 20 original songs written by legendary singer songwriter Tim Finn, so it is of little surprise perhaps that 14 months after its debut season, its soundtrack is memorable even just in anticipation of its encore season as part of a national tour.
The story, adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, “The Women in Black” and brought to life by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns tells of an innocent and bookish but ambitious (against her father’s wishes) school-leaver, Lisa, who lands a coveted job on the sales team at one of Sydney’s most stylish department stores, Goodes, for the Christmas holiday period. It is the late 1950s and with the city contemplating cosmopolitanism, Lisa’s world is expanded as she befriends the unlucky-in-love Fay, the frustratedly childless Patty and particularly exotic European refugee, Magda of model gowns.
The department story setting gives the show some stunning visuals. The costumes, which include a range of some 30 custom-designed and created dresses and suits, all created at Queensland Theatre, are spectacular, which is entirely appropriate for a store in which the dresses are not just beautiful but have their own names and personalities.
Opulent drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a high-end department store shop floor. The use of revolving platforms allows for seamless scene transitions and David Walters’ lush lighting illuminates proceedings. Every aspect of the production is electrified with lively energy, and dynamic musical numbers, such as Act Two’s ‘Pandemonium’ illustration of the January sales onslaught on the shop floor, are enhanced by clever choreography.
Every musical number is on-point in its combination of melody and lyrics, despite the soundtrack’s varied sensibilities. From the incidental music of background Christmas carols to the laid-back languish of ‘On a Summer Afternoon’ the live band is excellent in every instance and it is wonderful to see them at-times showcased on stage, behind a scrim screen. And the strings, in particular add enormous emotion to wistful numbers such as ‘The Fountain’. However, the most memorable of musical numbers are so because of their witty lyrics. ‘The Bastard Song’ shared tongue-in-cheek chastise of how all men as bastards is met with exuberant response, even when only in reprise. And Fay’s frank reflection ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ is an Act Two highlight in its catchy melody and humour as much as its still-relevant social commentary about Australian xenophobia.
While there have been some cast changes since its first Brisbane outing, Sarah Morrison remains as ingénue Lisa, innocently wide-eyed but with a soaring soprano sound. Musical star Bobby Fox, who wowed audiences playing Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” also returns to nearly steal the show as Rudi (the ‘continental with whom Fay is sharing kisses) along with the award-winning Carita Farrer Spencer who plays Lisa’s torn-between mother.
New to the cast for the 2017 Australian tour is Natalie Gamsu as ‘crazy continental’ Magda, who dominates the stage in her ever presence. Also joining the show are Madeleine Jones as Patty and Ellen Simpson as Fay. Jones, in particular, is of excellence voice, from start to finish, as evidenced in her ‘Try Again’ tell of attempt to start a family. And all characters bring believability to their roles, capturing the Aussie vernacular and accents of the time and bringing witty delivery to the script’s many dry-humour moments.
“Ladies in Black” is an utterly charming show that represents the renaissance of the Australian musical and it is easy to appreciate its win of the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. More than just a stylish frock fest, its experience is lots of fun with some inspiring underling messages about female empowerment. And audiences should be flocking to it either in remind of its greatness or as introduction to this wonderful Australian work.