The Sunshine Club opens in the summer of 1946. 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 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, he quickly realises this isn’t the case. He is denied entry to the Lord Mayor’s Victory Ball to see his childhood friend Rose (Irena Lysiuk) sing at the Cloudland ballroom. Systematic discrimination of indigenous Australians, including through curfews and travel restrictions, is pervasive. Searching for 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. That is where everyone is invited and he can dance with Rose, the daughter of Reverend Morris (Andrew Buchanan), for whom his Aunty Faith (Roxanne McDonald) has worked for many years as housekeeper. What follows is spirit-soaring. We move through Frank and Rose’s story toward an operatic climax and meta-theatrical ending.
Directed again by Enoch, who wrote the book and lyrics of the Helpmann Award nominated 1999 original, this revival includes a number of creatives from the original production alongside a new generation of First Nations artists. Marcus Corowa is outstanding as protagonist Frank Doyle. His vocals are powerful. 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. Irena Lysiuk gives the girl of Frank’s dreams feistiness, well-intentioned naïveté and endearing passion. She looks and sounds the part, especially in her celebration of potential love in the brassy “Let It Rain”.
The heart and soul of the show, however, is undeniably Roxanne McDonald, in reprising 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, balancing this nicely with her caring nature, always looking after the strays and loving her family fiercely. And while Faith may have to rely upon others at times, she knows the reality of the world, often making the most sense. Andrew Buchanan similarly gives Rose’s strict Christian Reverend father a considered light and shade.
Naarah makes the spirited Pearl Doyle a moving juxtaposition to Rose. Not only is she a commanding performer dramatically, but her strong vocals are showcased in tormented tribute to the tragedy of lost dreams in the powerful “Passionfruit Vine”. And Beau Dean Riley Smith makes her lovesick admirer Dave Daylight a loveable larrikin.
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. There is an infectious energy to the lively numbers, enhanced by the Yolanda Brown’s dance choreography. The Sunshine Club is on at The Playhouse, QPAC until 30th July, 2022.
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane