Ladies in Black means well. A new Australian musical based on Madeleine St John’s novel Women in Black, it carries in its quintessentially Australian core an eagerness to charm audiences. Just like young protagonist Lisa Miles longs to grow up, defy boundaries, and find her identity in mid 20th century Australia, so too is this musical trying to come into its own as a new player on the country’s musical theatre scene.
It’s refreshing to see not only a new Australian musical as part of Sydney Festival, let alone one with a typically Australian story, not to mention a host of women at its centre. At first glance, Ladies in Black seems to have a lot to offer – but unfortunately in its excited rush to the stage the songs (by Tim Finn) are underdeveloped, some book scenes fall flat, and the stakes of the story (a group of women looking for that elusive thing that will make them happy) never feel as compelling as they could and should.
The show, with a book by Carolyn Burns, weaves together stories of women of different ages, social classes and cultures who all work at fictional department store Goodes, the platform upon which we are given insight into their ambitions, struggles and day-to-day lives. There’s unhappy Patty (Madeleine Jones) who longs for children, Fay (a comic Ellen Simpson) who wants a husband, and cultured and refined Magda (Natalie Gamsu) who takes Lisa under her wing. But its focus is a classic coming of age story through Lisa (an earnest, captivating Sarah Morrison), that young girl itching to defy gender expectations and attend university. It’s not hard to see why people are championing this show.
However, though the heart of the piece is palpable, its underdeveloped packaging constantly obstructs that warmth. The narratives weave together well, but big plot points never really land: a woman’s husband leaving her and her subsequent illness seems to just be a passing moment; a daughter fighting for her right to be educated in a time where women were expected to be stay at home mothers is reduced to merely a few scenes; and, even worse, this woman’s struggle is outdone and undermined by her far less significant but more overplayed desire for a beautiful model gown.
Similarly, the score is frequently underwhelming, littered with cringe-worthy moments – the lyrics do little to progress the narrative, often falling into clichés or compromising meaning or character in order to get an easy rhyme. Despite a vivacious band, the score has few truly enrapturing moments, and can even feel harmonically dissonant. Though, when at its best, Finn’s score is brightly and infectiously Australian (‘Always Be Happy’), and it’s most successful when telling Lisa’s story; her first song ‘Soon I will be me’ is a touching insight into her secret dreams.
Director Simon Phillips does little to counter the problems inherent in the book and score. While he brings out the charm and heart of the show by ensuring the comedy beats are strongest, he does little to raise the dramatic stakes where they need to be. The result is a sometime tedious production that has a few enchanting moments but never truly captivates its audience.
This musical so wants to do the right thing. It even includes a superfluous speech late in the second act explicitly championing for young women to be educated and defy their society’s expectations. It tries really hard to be socially conscious of the time it was in and push those historical boundaries. It longs to present an Australian narrative about strong Australian women, and at times its heart shines through and it is lovely. But we need more rigorous and more thorough development processes for Australian musicals, so their heart and intent can truly reach its potential and not fall victim to poor framework and poor craft.