The Sapphires (HIT Productions)
March 19 – 20
Inspired by a true story of four young Aboriginal country-singing women from regional Australia, “The Sapphires” is one of our country’s best-loved stories, thanks largely to the popular 2012 musical comedy-drama film based on the 2004 stage play of the same name. This is clear both from the capacity crowd at QUT’s Garden’s Theatre for opening night of the Brisbane leg of the Hit Productions’ tour of the gem of a story and the immediate audience response to the titular divas. Introduced as Australia’s deadliest entertainers who have gone on from performing on the back of trucks and at debutante balls to become a slick international musical act, the group’s four members Kay (Matilda Brown), Cynthia (Mindy Kwanten), Julie (Lorina May Merrypor) and Gail (Ngaire Pigram) certainly sparkle, making the show an overall entertaining experience.
Even though it takes a while for the production to settle into itself, the soul divas immediately display their vocal talents with ‘Heatwave’. And together, the ladies can certainly sing. The melody of their a cappella ‘Yellow Bird’ warm up for competition at the St Kilda Tiki Club makes this clear. It is at the club’s 1968 Search for Star talent quest where the sisters meet talent scout Dave Lovelace (Mike Smith) who forms them into the group, The Sapphires, to tour army bases in Vietnam to sing for troops during the war. Once there, individual stories unfold against the tumultuous backdrop. Things lag a little in Act Two though, especially with some drawn-out scenes of distracting load and unload of suitcases from a cumbersome truck and the performers do well to keep things bouncy even when the script loses its own energy.
The leading ladies, in particular, are all engaging performers. There is a familiarity to their between-sister comic banter of teasing and threats and when they do this in argument about whether Julie should join her older sisters in performance, it comes across as one of the most natural and comfortable scenes of the show.
It is easy to appreciate the family dynamics given the diversity of personalities of the sisters. As their leader of sorts, forthright and not-easily-managed Gail, Ngaire Pigram not only conveys the right amount of feistiness, but effectively manages her transition from scepticism to affection for Dave as a natural progression. Mindy Kwanten makes the ego-ed Cynthia appropriately larger than life in personality, however, as such, the character often dominates proceedings at the expense of the delicacy of her sister’s narratives. The supporting cast (Aljin Abella, Don Battee and Calen Tassone), meanwhile, add interest in a variety of roles to flesh out subplots as much as possible.
United in song the group generally comes together well, although ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, highlights that not all voices are as powerful. They certainly look the part though, with careful consuming establishing a sense of time and place in daywear contrast to the sequined-up razzle dazzle of the ladies’ concert attire. Lighting also works well both for function and to allude to the story’s changing thematic moods.
The small backing band (Mitchell Kwanten, Joel Macintyre and Jack Hickey) may be somewhat hidden away towards the back of the stage, however, they make their presence known, adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of the evening. And it is great to see them given their own musical moments to shine. However, the show is billed as a story with songs, so that the sudden addition of individual character musical-type numbers in Act Two unsettles things in terms of overall cohesion.
By its time and place setting alone, “The Sapphires” is in some way political. While this production touches on these themes, its essence is about more than just this and it feels like anything beyond what we see, would not be a good fit with the show’s essentially light-weight sensibility. After all, the appeal of “The Sapphires” comes mostly from its classic soul pieces and easy-listening music of The Temptations and The Supremes sort, which is sure to hit the spot for many audience members as this production tours to over 140 locations in Australia in 2019/2020, in theatres and ‘off the road’ on a special ‘Pop-Up’ stage for remote Aboriginal communities, hopefully improving in its consistency as it does.