Ladies in Black is back in Melbourne and delighting audiences at the Regent Theatre. A return season of a hit Australian musical is something to stand up and cheer about, and that’s what happened on opening night in Melbourne’s grand old Regent Theatre when the home-grown musical Ladies in Black came to town as part of its national tour.
Following very successful 2016 Brisbane and Melbourne seasons, the ladies are now cutting a swathe through Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne again, with the final stop being Canberra.
Set in 1950s Australia Ladies in Black takes place in the cocktail frock department of a posh Sydney department store, Goodes. Into this heady atmosphere of a store to make suburban dreams come true comes Lisa, a bright school leaver on a summer job before she hopefully goes to university. Lisa’s dreams don’t sit well with her traditional 1950s Aussie father, and there are several clashes before a satisfactory ending for both father and daughter.
Ladies in Black has an excellent pedigree, based on Madeleine St John’s well-loved book The Women in Black, adapted for the stage by Carolyn Burns, directed by Simon Phillips and musical director David Youn. The music is from the creative brain of Split Enz legend Tim Finn, making the show winning trans-Tasman collaboration.
Ladies in Black is a well-constructed musical – it has a huge heart and recognisable characters of many different hues and several interconnecting storylines. We meet classic Australian characters, European refugees who have made a new life down under, and the Ladies in Black themselves—the coiffed and groomed sales attendants of Goodes, who can make an ordinary woman’s dreams come true with a little haute couture and panache, even when their own after work lives may leave a lot to be desired.
Ladies in Black takes the audience into this world, via a fine script, terrific songs and a cast where everyone is perfectly suited to their roles. It is very much an ensemble piece, with several actors playing multiple roles, but there isn’t a weak character in the show, so everyone gets their moment in the spotlight.
As the central character Lisa, Sarah Morrison catches perfectly the mix of naïve hope, candour, and the charm of youth. Watching her blossom as she is taken under the wing of the “crazy continental” Magda is to watch a flower bloom as she discovers a European world that draws her as a moth to a flame. As Magda, Natalie Gamsu gives a characterization of energy and brilliance – it’s a bravura performance. Kate Cole as Miss Cartwright is all 1950s elegance and class. In the smaller role of Miss Jacobs, veteran stage performer Trisha Noble delivers a beautiful and sensitive characterization as the older elegant spinster, whose life is her work, having lost her fiancé in the First World War.
As one of the three men alongside a cast of eight women, Greg Stone switches with ease from the classic Aussie father to the romantic European husband – a winning performance that delivers two totally contrasting characters, while triple threat Bobby Fox, sings, acts and dances his way superbly as three different characters, but it’s his Hungarian alter ego of Rudi who falls for an Australian girl that stands out.
It’s rare in music theatre to see such welcome diversity in casting and gender, but having eight women of varying shapes and sizes and three men is a nice reversal for the female side of the profession. The ages of the female characters range from the teenage Lisa through to the senior citizen Miss Jacobs, reflecting the reality of the audience watching the show.
Ladies in Black works so well because it simply captures the audience and takes it with them through this very recognisable story of Australians and post-war migrants learning to live with each other. Alongside the typical Australian humour in dialogue and song, there are several poignant sub-plots that make us think, and perhaps the secret of the show’s success is that we care about every single character, and want them to be happy.
Designer Gabriela Tylesova’s gowns are a treat for the eye and you will leave the theatre humming Tim Finn’s catchy music.
Ladies in Black exemplifies everything that is good about theatre—and it’s our own home-grown success.