‘Margaret Fulton: The Musical’ was a treat.
‘Margaret Fulton: The Musical’ transported audiences to the 1940s and back with its evocative set design, exquisite costuming, crystal-clear vocals and polished dancing from the six young stars who sparkled on stage – sometimes literally in sequined jackets!
If the crowd was expecting the tale of a mild-mannered housewife, they were in for a surprise: this single mother had multiple marriages (including a cross-dressing Irish artist), held her own in the sexist world of advertising (“Take your hands off me if you want to keep them!”), and put her career ahead of her personal life. Margaret Fulton challenged gender norms while building her brand as the woman who inspired Australian housewives to stray from meat and three veg – even selling them the latest cookware while she was at it.
With music composed by Yuri Worontschak and book and lyrics by Doug MacLeod, this production is a musical biography about Order of Australia-recognised and 2006 National Living Treasure Fulton, who was additionally named in 2009 as one of 25 Australians who has most changed the nation for her influence on the country’s cooking scene. Based partly on her bestselling autobiography, ‘I Sang for my Supper’, MacLeod reportedly began crafting the show in the mid-1990s after meeting with Fulton to pitch a TV series. It premiered in Melbourne in 2012, which meant Fulton was able to see the show before her death in 2019 at 94 years old.
Sunshine Coast-based Jally Entertainment brought the story to the Logan Entertainment Centre on 21 March as part of its national tour. The experience was augmented with wedding-style circular tables upon which the delighted crowd devoured Fulton’s classic dishes in a pre-show lunch: French-toasted Chicken Maryland with port mushroom sauce, Lyonnaise potatoes and buttered zucchini alternatively dropped with Claret-braised lamb shank with creamy mashed potato and Italian green beans, followed by classic bistro cheesecake with sherry-stewed berries or sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce and ice cream – yum!
If the way to a crowd’s heart is through the stomach, the audience was well-prepared for the dimmed lights and smoke emanating from the stage as the cast sang ‘The Book’ to open the show.
What followed was 80 minutes of extremely well-executed and fast-paced theatre. Direction by Aarne Neeme included an excellent use of space, with the cast themselves also used for scene changes. Together, this was quick and seamless, despite numerous costumes and intricate choreography.
Choreography by Dan Venz (with assistant choreographer Jared Mifsud) involved imaginative patterns, synced execution by the performers and nice individual movements for different characters to shine. There was a fantastic and varied use of props in the dance numbers that also assisted with scene changes. The only brief section that seemed vaguely out of place was the pseudo-tap sequence in ‘Jam’ – though still well-executed by the cast.
Ethan Costello’s lighting design used colours, transitions and spotlights to change the settings and moods seamlessly; no physical set change necessary. The audience laughed along to the brightly lit frivolity of songs like ‘Jam’ one minute; then appreciated the grief and dark tenderness of a cancer diagnosis the next.
Wardrobe by Jally Entertainment and John Bailey’s homey set design worked perfectly to take the audience on a journey through the decades. Mint green kitchen cupboards, lace curtains, a dark wood dining set and orange cookware served as the backdrop, while hats and utensils were well-utilised as props throughout the musical numbers.
Sound design by Thomas Fisher was spot-on. Well-balanced volumes allowed both the rich harmonies and stunning solos to shine, and the recorded music tracks were played on cue throughout.
The songs themselves, though solidly sung under musical direction from Meg Kiddle, were not overly memorable for their complexity. Proud Aussie anthem ‘The Bicentenary’; only slightly blues-y ‘Margaret Fulton Blues’ and Parisian parody ‘La Vie Boheme’ appeared to have been crafted primarily to satirise different musical genres and add variety to the show. It wasn’t immediately clear why Acappella refrains were used throughout; perhaps to emphasise key plot points? Or perhaps merely to put on display the beautiful vocal talents of the cast members, especially lead actress Judy Hainsworth and love interest Conor Ensor, singing ‘Beautiful’ in one of Ensor’s many roles.
The variety in genres certainly served as a way for all performers to take their turn in the spotlight, each deservingly so. ‘Twixt Here and Here’ was beautifully sung by clear-voiced Jessica Kate Ryan as Fulton’s mother, Isabelle, and ‘Mandrake the Musician’ allowed Paige McKay to captivate the audience in her sultry red-lit excursion into cross-dressing. ‘Pressure Cooker’ provided a toe-tapping beat, tight choreography, and exceptional harmonies by Ryan, McKay and Zoe Harlen; and ‘Decorative, Elegant and Useless’ earned laughs from the crowd as Ryan and Hainsworth decried the qualities Fulton was attracted to in men.
Harlen as Fulton’s foul-mouthed “lady” friend, Bea, and Clancy Enchelmaier in his various roles (particularly as over-the-top German-born publisher Paul Hamlyn), consistently delighted the audience with their comedic character delivery.
Ensor stood out for his hilarious attempt to elicit some real audience interaction in his scene as TV host ‘Bobby Limb’: “What a natural applause…” he riffed as the Brisbane theatre slowly started clapping in response to his repeated motions of encouragement.
‘Margaret Fulton: The Musical’ made for a first-rate afternoon tea with its lively, entertaining storyline, talented cast and precise technical delivery. Highly recommend catching the show on its tour over the next five months.
‘Margaret Fulton: The Musical’ continues its national tour with over 55 performances scheduled until August 2021. For more information visit Jally Entertainment.