Ladies in BlackLeft – Madeleine Jones, Ellen Simpson, Natalie Gamsu. Cover – Cast of Ladies In Black. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

Musicals are on song. With the recent release of ‘La La Land’ the staging of Ladies in Black is timely. I looked forward to hearing Tim Finn’s score especially after the rich legacy from Finn’s years in ‘Crowded House’ and ‘Split Enz.’ Musical direction was spot on, the band valiant, energised and skilled, didn’t miss a beat and plumbed every nuance in Finn’s score. But the music, despite all its canny eclectic mixes sounded derivative. The lyrics, lazy.

Even so, ‘He’s A Bastard’ brought the house down, probably because of the bravado of the female vocalists parroting the everyday clichés women do say about men. Was it sexist? Yes. But it evidently hit the spot as the women cheered and clapped in delight. The delivery was deliciously deadpan which also helped its positive reception. The other couple of sparklers must be 'Ladies In Black' and the kick-up-your heels, 'Kissed A Continental.'

The story based on the book by Madeleine St John revolves around Goodes Department Store – a thinly disguised David Jones – and the lives of several of the Store’s employees. It’s set in 1959, when Australia was at a crossroads, a conservative, parochial, blinkered past on one side and a more sophisticated, bolder, cosmopolitan future on the other.

A coming of age story all round and not just about an innocent called Lisa, christened Lesley who gets a holiday job at Goodes. She’s a gusher, a fresh-faced, gauche, dowdy plus specs, good-as-gold Pollyanna blue stocking skillfully played by Sarah Morrison. Lisa bonds easily with Goodes’ employees and becomes privy to their secrets and is even taken under the wing of Eastern-European Magda from the swanky ‘Model Gowns’ section. Natalie Gamsu is rewarding in the role.

The only brakes on Lisa’s life are her repressive parents. Lisa waits in suspense for her results which she hopes will enable her to get a scholarship to study at University and realize her dream to be a poet.

Morrison’s voice is the most convincing, she can belt and ‘melt’ on cue and her diction is crystal clear. It’s obvious from the start that the only threat to Lisa going to University will not be average grades but her father’s old school attitudes. Women must be pretty, of average intellect and in maturity blossom into blissful servility as secretaries, assorted underlings, wives.

The association with Sydney is a nice touch and recalls other musicals, which have championed places like the hard-hitting Cabaret’s focus on Berlin. But unlike Cabaret where there is real drama, Ladies In Black is self-consciously twee, charming, funny at times but too, too predictable. And because of the direction by one of Australia’s greats Simon Phillips, the show is smug, too easily self-satisfied. The beginning clunked and creaked into gear. Frank’s manhood struggles teeter on the brink of ‘cringy’ and the crinkled lives of the two-dimensional characters are all neatly ironed, folded and stored in the linen cupboard by the end of the rather labored second act.

The set is vibrant, snazzy, multi-functional, the frocks are fun and the revolving stage a winner. The cast does its best. Bobby Fox is outstanding as the ‘continental’ Rudi, Ellen Simpson has the ‘moves’ as Fay, Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography is slick and Madeline Jones as Patty makes a realistically bored wife to Frank, Tamlyn Henderson. And the ensemble is purposefully professional. Like comfort food, the show is feel good, palatable, easily digested, fills a need, prompts a smile at the nice directorial touches but afterwards you wonder whether it was worth it.

Queensland Theatre in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre present
Ladies in Black
book Carolyn Burns | music and lyrics Tim Finn | based on the novel by Madeleine St John

Directed by Simon Phillips

Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Dates: 28 January – 19 February 2017
Tickets: $60 – $95

Gillian Wills is the author of ‘Elvis and Me: How a world-weary musician and a broken ex-racehorse rescue each other,’ Finch and writes for Australian Stage Online, Limelight Magazine, The Australian, Courier Mail and Townsville Bulletin as well as Cut Common, ArtsHub and Loudmouth.


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