‘Ladies in Black’ was determined.
With a 71 year history, Villanova Players have marked their 310th production, by presenting ‘Ladies in Black’ at the Ron Hurley Theatre. An Australian musical that has coming-of-age sentimentality, the show holds dear to many due to its historical references.
Centring around the women who worked at Sydney’s Goodes department store in the late 1950s, ‘Ladies in Black’ is fashionably elegant in its depiction. The musical, with book by Carolyn Burns and music by Tim Finn, is based on Madeline St John’s novel of the same name (released in 1993).
The story follows as is – Lisa Miles has just completed high school and gains employment as a ‘temp’ within the Goodes ladies wear department over the summer break. Here she meets a colourful collection of women who change the way she views herself and her world, whilst having similar effects on many of them. There’s Fay, who is considered an old maid spinster at the age of 25; Pattie, who is struggling in her 10-year marriage after their failure to have children; and Magda, the flamboyant Hungarian migrant that simply wants to bring joy into the world. Lisa, a bookish, intelligent young woman, has her sights set on studying at university, which is, unfortunately, a concept beyond her father’s understanding.
‘Ladies in Black’ sees these women grow and change, opening themselves up to possibilities and opportunities for happiness and fulfilment. The musical is a great story for Australian audiences and a wonderful opportunity for female performers – no doubt why it has been popular with several community companies around Brisbane in the last year or so. The characters in the story are its lifeblood, and the script generally allows this to occur.
There are some problems within the text and the musicals score seems to hinder audience engagement and the emotional highs of its characters. Very few songs are catchy enough to remain memorable. Their melodies are often jumpy, and sometimes multiple genres feature across the repertoire, which does not support the characterisation, era or plot. For example, the title number has a pop-rock feel and does not mesh with sophistication and poise expected of the staff at the Goodes department store. Even humour is pulled where it can and an instance of this is ‘The Bastard Song’, delivered by a quartet of suburban housewives, more for its comedy rather than any musical elements.
Despite inconsistencies with the musical itself, the cast of Villanova Players did an admirable job of tackling the ambitious score and presenting an entertaining show. While the production as a whole had many wonderful elements with potential and standout moments, the difficulty and lacking technical aspects, unfortunately, did not allow performers to shine as best as they could.
Director Leo Bradley created a simple and effective playing space for the story, using single pieces of furniture, with era-appropriate furnishings and decorations, to represent the various locations. Actors moved around the set with ease, effective blocking and the area was used well.
It would have been nice to see more of an atmosphere created for the ‘Ladies in Black’ story-line, as it was jarring to enter the theatre with the working fluorescent lights on and no background music, giving the audience the sense that the theatre was not yet ready for them. The only break was a projected presentation of the company’s 2020 season, which unfortunately had too much text and moved too quickly to read comprehensively. As the audience returned from the interval, the house door was still open, and people were returning to their seats when we were suddenly plunged into darkness, which could have caused a mishap.
At times, some of the music was beyond vocal abilities with incompatible notes, odd phrasing and clashing harmonies. The broad Australian accents could have been pulled back to assist with pitching or the accompaniments of the small band on stage – led by Musical Director Sean Fagan – could have been orchestrated to facilitate more tonal support.
Within the theatre space, the band was positioned at the back of the stage, which meant they performed acoustically or through amplifiers, rather than any sound running through the front of house system, and the actors all had individual microphones. These sound levels were off and enhanced the vocal flaws across the cast, which, in a different acoustic environment, would not have stood out as much. The microphones were switched off when on stage, on when backstage and were far too loud at times.
During the show, lighting design attempted to break up the small stage into Bradley’s location-orientated sections, but sometimes actors moved into shadows. Had the entire stage been lit while they remained in these separate areas, there would have been no issue. It was evident opening night jitters were aplenty and these elements will hopefully be corrected during the production run.
Despite technical issues, the cast worked hard to bring this story and its unique characters to life. Standout performances came from Fiona Kennedy as Magda and Lauren Flood as Patty. Kennedy’s characterisation, accent and energy were in abundance on the stage. Her first entrance presented Magda a bit too harshly, but she grew more and more lovable as she and Lisa (Cecillia Girard) worked together. Magda’s New Year’s Eve party monologue was highly entertaining and perfectly timed and executed. Lauren Flood had outstanding vocals and characterisation as Patty, engaging the audience in her yearning journey to be a good wife and to become a mother.
Choreography by Lynette Wockner moved appropriately around the stage, however, several older actors who handled the movements well could have been given actions more suitable to their ability and character. The choreography featured in the title number, which returned as a finale, matched the music and was lively. Costuming, designed by Lia Surrentino, was also particularly well done, with each character dressed fashionably for their age, shape and the period itself.
‘Ladies in Black’ is a great choice for any theatre company, and Villanova Players has selected a beauty for their latest production. While some elements within the production can be tightened and could have had more consideration, the ambitious theatre company has done a bonza job.
‘Ladies in Black’ preforms at the Ron Hurley Theatre in Seven Hills until Sunday, 10 November 2019. Tickets are available at Villanova Players Website.