Ladies in Black (Regent) – theatre review

Take a slice of nostalgia and add in colourful characters, headlined by a young “brainiac” with designs on furthering herself; then stir in a scintillating score with humour and heart, and a surfeit of highly talented and melodic voices. What comes out is a very special night of original Australian musical theatre that compares favourably with some of the finest overseas offerings playing Down Under. After a successful MTC season last year, Ladies in Black returns – this time to arguably Melbourne’s finest and most regal venue, the Regent Theatre.

It is a magical modern-day fairy tale set in a stylish department store – F.G. Goodes – in a city on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan. Sydney is crossing the threshold between the stuffy repression of the 1950s and the glorious liberation of the 1960s. Sales staff is recognised for wearing “the uniform”, namely a distinguished black dress. Into this environment steps a bright-eyed, academically gifted, bookish schoolgirl, Lisa (she is an avid reader who writes poetry), awaiting her “Leaving” results, ahead of what she hopes will be entrance to university. Her domineering father has other ideas. His Victorian values see him wanting to railroad her into a career as a secretary. The teen’s temporary assignment in Sydney’s most prestigious department store is a real head-turner for her. A world of possibilities opens up as she is immediately embraced by the women on the floor, who she gets to know and care about. Foremost amongst them is the mysterious European refugee, Magda, the mistress of the one-off gowns, who lives life to the fullest and takes Lisa under her wing. And let’s not overlook the unlucky in love Fay and the frustrated wife Patty, to name but a couple.

Revisiting the role of Lisa, the young starry-eyed school-leaver, is Queensland-born Sarah Morrison, who studied opera at the Queensland Conservatorium and then moved to Victoria to follow her love of musical theatre. She has a rich and redolent voice. Her mother is played by Carita Farrer Spencer and her father Greg Stone, who also takes on the additional role of Stefan, the overtly effusive husband of the upmarket department store’s haute couture sales lady. His affectations and mannerisms are priceless, while Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) is a real hoot as the new Hungarian immigrant Rudi (otherwise known as “the Continental”). In fact, more than half the cast, including Kathryn McIntyre and Kate Cole, remains the same.

New for the 2017 Australian tour is Natalie Gamsu (Strictly Ballroom), who adds sizzle and style to the role of Magda, while Madeleine Jones (Once) plays Patty. Ellen Simpson (TV’s Molly) is Fay. Other newbies are Trish Noble and Tamlyn Henderson.

Written by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns, with original music and lyrics by Tim Finn (Crowded House), the genesis of Ladies in Black was a chance encounter at Brisbane Airport. Finn was looking for a book to read and picked up and bought Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black. After reading it, he was compelled to call director Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and plant the seed for a stage production. Finn actually started writing the music on the flight he took.

The show features more than 20 fresh songs and some 30 custom-designed and created dresses and suits. Ladies in Black premiered in Brisbane in November 2015 and went on to win the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. All the plaudits that the production initially received are richly deserved again. It is warm, witty, joyous and entrancing. You are carried along by the narrative and the ear pleasing numbers that help propel the story.

Six elegant columns and delicate curtaining are the mainstays of the minimalist staging, which sees the orchestra at the rear. Ladies in Black brings back fond memories of a bygone era, in which the term “political correctness” hadn’t been invented and European immigrants were still considered “exotic”. Mind you, the writing clearly takes great pleasure in highlighting the divide between the expectations placed upon men and women, and their suitability for certain professions. Highly appropriate, then, that along comes this respectful, young female upstart who unwittingly shakes the tree.

Ladies in Black is an immensely pleasurable night of good, old-fashioned entertainment that should not be missed, whether or not you saw it the first time around. It is playing at the Regent Theatre until March 18th, before opening at the Canberra Theatre Centre on March 27th.

Alex First

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