Book by Carolyn Burns
Directed by Simon Phillips
Queensland Theatre Company
Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Season: 3 – 22 January
It is a common device to view the uniting of women around the sentimental aspect of fashion and clothing. The new Australian-New Zealand musical Ladies in Black ventures down this path, as the audience follows the story of Lesley in the midst of the 1950s, as she finishes her Leaving Certificate and gets a temp job at F.G. Goodes the department store in Sydney. Admittedly, it’s a concept that didn’t initially excite me much, feeling like similar tropes had been trotted onto the stage in the past and were all too familiar. However, any misgivings I had about the musical were quickly washed away. Carolyn Burns’ text and Tim Finn’s music and lyrics take the approach of depicting daily circumstances as they were for women in the 50s, without over-romanticising the era. We see sexist attitudes and casual racism in the vein of recognising where we have come from and acknowledging how much further we have to go as a society. The show is about so much more than a department store and dresses.
The musical presents us with an array of well-developed characters, an engaging plot and some sparkling musical numbers to boot. Sarah Morrison leads the cast as Lesley, the young mousy character who changes her name to Lisa when she starts work at F.G. Goodes, dreaming of becoming a poet but working at the store because she was told it would do her good for her ‘confidence’. Morrison is convincing and warm in the role, not missing a note and yet pulling off an endearing character transformation as the story unfolds. Madeline Jones gives a highly compelling performance as Patty, as she deals with inability to conceive and abandonment by her husband. It was fascinating to watch her husband Frank, played by Tamlyn Henderson, deal with the hyper-masculine social expectations that were proving impossible to fulfil. Seeing the ramifications of this burden we enforce on each other in society is both pertinent for a contemporary audience and tragic.
Gabriela Tylesova’s design work for the show is exquisite. Predominantly understated for a large part of the show, the design allows the performers to fill the space and paint a versatile picture for the audience. It is the dresses that are really quite beautiful, especially when the Model Gown section of the department store is unveiled, to both Lisa and the audience’s amaze. Choreography by Andrew Hallsworth is simple yet effective – this is not a dance-based musical, but the movement accompanies the singing splendidly. Where Hallsworth’s choreography is allowed a little more pizazz is with Bobby Fox’s performance of Rudi, ‘the Continental’. With Fox’s experience as Frankie Valli in the Jersey Boys, he is an excellent dancer and the opportunities to showcase these skills are well capitalised upon. In addition, his acting is delightfully humorous – he sure knows how to perform and please a crowd.
Amongst a skilful cast with eclectic personalities, the audience is treated to the wonderfully haphazard rapport between women undergoing a variety of challenges batted to them in life. Tim Finn incorporates a distinctly Australian-New Zealand sense of humour into the musical that is brilliantly quirky and quite hilarious. How exciting it is to see an original musical tour the country, without the backing of a very familiar storyline or world-renown, in a production that is slick, touching and relevant to audiences of today.