Shining bright again

The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 9 – 30

“The Sunshine Club” opens in the summer of 1946 with World War II just over. Ambitious Aboriginal solider, former boxing champion Frank Doyle (Marcus Corowa) has spent years fighting for freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with troops from all over Australia. Despite its opening number, ‘Lest We Forget’, the war, however, does not set the narrative tone of Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical.  

Frank thinks the world can be different, but upon return to his hometown of Brisbane, quickly realises this isn’t the case when he is denied entry to the Lord Mayor’s Victory Ball to see his childhood friend Rose (Irena Lysiuk) sing at the Cloudland ballroom. In this not-that-long-ago era, systematic discrimination of indigenous Australians is all around, including through curfews and travel restrictions. Hopeful in want of a better life, where he can be more than just an exception to the rules, Frank sets up his own dance hall, the fictitious The Sunshine Club, where everyone is invited and he can dance with Rose, daughter of Reverend Morris (Andrew Buchanan), for whom his Aunty Faith (Roxanne McDonald) has worked for many years as housekeeper… cue catchy titular song ‘The Sunshine Club’, which sets the mood of what is a defiantly joyous musical experience. What follows is spirit-soaring in its entertainment, making its 2 hours 30 min duration (with interval) fly by in move through Frank and Rose’s story towards an operatic climax and meta-theatrical ending that reframes the work with call upon the audience to reflect on how far Australia has come, and how far the country still has to go, towards Reconciliation.

Directed again by Enoch, who wrote the book and lyrics of the Helpmann Award nominated 1999 original, which also played at The Playhouse, the revival includes a number of creatives from the original production alongside a new generation of First Nations artists, many of whom are making their Queensland Theatre debut. Marcus Corowa is outstanding in the role of protagonist Frank Doyle; his vocals are powerful and he effectively emotes Frank’s varied responses as he works through his return to an unchanged society and then optimism about moving forward in a romantic relationship with Rose. Lysiuk, gives the girl of Frank’s dreams feistyness and well-intentioned naivety, but also endearing passion. She looks and sounds the part, especially in her celebration of potential love in the brassy ‘Let It Rain’, which soars with her gorgeous soprano sounds.

The heart and soul of the show, however, is undeniably McDonald, in reprise of her role as Aunty Faith, after more than 20 years. A clear audience favourite, she makes the strong-willed cyclone of a matriarch’s quips very funny, but balances this nicely with her caring nature, always looking after the strays and loving her family fiercely. And while Faith may have to rely on others at times, such as Rose to read Frank’s wartime letters home, she knows of the reality of the world, often speaking the most sense. Buchanan similarly gives Rose’s strict Christian Reverend father a considered light and shade, which is of particular credit given how easily the role could have been realised as an antagonistic caricature.

Naarah makes the spirited Pearl Doyle a moving juxtaposition to Rose, of similar talent and ambition for the future, but limited comparative opportunity. Not only is she a commanding performer dramatically, but her strong vocals are showcased in tormented tribute to the tragedy of lost dreams, the powerful ‘Passionfruit Vine’. And Beau Dean Riley Smith makes her lovesick admirer Dave Daylight a loveable larrikin, more than just an askew-dressed slacker cannery-worker.

A five-piece onstage band (Mika Atkinson, Stephen Newcomb, Katie Randall, Michael Whitaker, led by the original production’s Music Director Wayne Freer) fills John Rodgers’ score with brass-filled of-era sounds with songs about subjects like the door-to-door sales of Pearl’s ‘Sellin’ Man’ love interest Peter (Trent Owers), and of course love, adding much to the atmosphere of the dance club scenes, along with Jacob Nash’s set and property design. There is an infectious energy to the lively numbers, enhanced by the Yolanda Brown’s dance choreography and numbers like the jazzy ‘Strictly Saturday Night’ allow for showcase of individual instrumentation.

‘Dancin’ Up a Storm’, during which the characters kick up their heals while a Brisbane summer storm threatens the sky outside, is incredibly catchy and even the more subdued dreaminess of the ‘We Danced’ duet between Corowa and Lysiuk sways the audience beautifully tinto interval. ‘Shadow Dancer’, a duet of assurance between the two lovers serves as a clear highlight, thanks to the precision of both vocalists. Corowa’s vocal range, in particular, is outstanding and gives a serenity to texture atop angst in his attempt to understand his post-war frustrations and want for the world to change in ‘Homecoming’.

Internationally acclaimed Nunukul and Ngugi playwright and director Wesley Enoch AM directs the work with a dexterity that allows statements about first nations people in the world to be layered within its dialogue rather than overtly signposted in and of themselves. The humour and optimism that cushions their confrontation allows for reminders such as the lack of aboriginal franchise (until 1962) to be shared in, for example, the swinging ‘Sit Down Mr. Menzies’ and moving ensemble finale ‘If Not Now Then When’ in response to Frank’s ask of “when is my time?” National issues aside, however, “The Sunshine Club” is very much a Brisbane story, full of location landmark mentions and thanks to Richard Roberts’ costume design, ‘40s era evocation. While it is a historical work of a particular time, “The Sunshine Club” is also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love, and then also consider in terms of its still-powerful messaging celebration of resilience.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

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