Adapted from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography, first published in October 1928, Orlando: A New Musical charts the path of the eponymous hero. After being a handsome teenage boy, the aristocratic Orlando undergoes a sex change and lives on for more than 300 years. The musical is about their life and times. All five performers in it play manifestations of Orlando, as well as other characters that come in and out of their life, which is tumultuous.
Orlando is a poet and falls in love with a feral Russian princess. They deal with the Great Frost over the Thames in 1608. They find a writing mentor who proceeds to pillory their work. They face a lawsuit over their property. They meet a driven sea captain … and much more. Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, which was known for its liberal views on sexuality. The music and lyrics for Orlando: A New Musical, a world premiere work, are by Rachel Lewindon. The book and lyrics are by Willow Sizer, in collaboration with the cast.
Familiarity with the source material, namely Virginia’s Woolf book, is a decided advantage, otherwise you might find yourself lost, at least initially. Featuring a talented cast, Orlando: A New Musical is a buoyant and heartfelt work. It starts mysteriously, with darkness and whispered sounds. All we see in the blackness are five small lights. These turn out to be emanating from the foreheads of the five actors – Willow Sizer, Marty Alix, Louie Dalzell, Manali Datar and Kikki Temple – who are wearing headlamps. It is, of course, what some people do when they go exploring in the night.
Antipodes Theatre Company’s first original Australian work is a stimulating, blended, artistic creation. Rachel Lewindon and Willow Sizer set about crafting a piece that challenged them and made them – and us – think and they have succeeded in doing so. Orlando combines traditional, dramatic and musical theatre with contemporary classic music, experimental electronic music, folk music and poetry. The result is an aural exploration of themes including colonisation, gender identity, artistic expression and self-love. The theatre company’s goal is to bring marginalised voices to the centre of its work.
The vocalisation of the troupe is strong and assured. They sing melodically. Each is given their moments to shine and shine they do, individually and collectively. Among the musical’s strengths are its staging, sound and lighting. A small brook surrounded by stones makes a captivating centrepiece. Set and costume designer Bethany J. Fellows has done a fine job bringing the natural environment indoors. For an original work borne of oppression, prejudice and shame, co-directors Maude Davey and Margot Fenley oversee a profound and challenging production.
Creatively expressive, Orlando: A New Musical will, no doubt confound some, but will appeal to others. It is playing at fortyfivedownstairs until 11th November, 2023.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.