I came back to the Heidelberg Theatre Company for the final time this year on Friday night to attend the opening night of their first ever musical production in their over seventy year history, an adaptation of Tim Finn’s Ladies In Black; despite the presentation of such a show being a brand new concept for them, the company seized the opportunity to accept the challenge and it all worked in their favour as they brought an all new theatrical audience to their beloved theatre and proved that those organisations who are new to the musical world can deliver stellar productions just as well as experienced musical theatre companies.
Despite being Heidelberg Theatre Company’s first full blown musical, none of the personnel involved in the production team or cast were strangers to the art of musical theatre and they all provided us with a dream team to make this musical dream a reality. In the coveted director’s chair, Tim Scott had a high end creative vision that had the ability to insert the audience into the late 1950s setting and narrative with values that may be overly traditional by today’s standards but strongly reflected the mindsets of the time; featured a set design from Brenton Staples and the late great John Shelbourn (who this show is dedicated to) that showcased the grandeur of department stores that is still present to this day and bridged the gap between the common people and the lush life, a message which Ladies In Black thrives on; and Scott allowed his actors to make their characters as relatable to the everyday Australian individual as possible whether they reminded us of a friend, a cousin, an uncle/aunt, etcetera in a posh and pristine directorial effort done right for Australia set productions everywhere. Musical director John Clancy and his assistant MD Matthew Tzivakis both worked tirelessly behind the baton to provide us with vocalisations and instrumentations that combined old school popular music with classically influenced arias to great success and although their trusted band and vocalists may have been competing in volume and sound levels at times, all involved were still capable of presenting us with a forceful but formidable and flashback MD turn that highlighted each individual talent of those who contributed to Tim Finn’s score throughout the night in any shape or form. Heavy dance routines were minimal in the spectacle but it didn’t stop choreographer Jenny Vincent-Green from putting on her dancing shoes and incorporating various chorey stylings of the era into each number and every dancer or mover on the stage was reminiscent of those who frequented the 50s dinner dance scene in an elegant and engaging choreographic feat that got the throwback party started.
Moving on to the cast of Ladies In Black, we begin with Rachel Ross, Gavin Baker, Harry Tibballs, Hillary Aramze, Frankie Photiadis and Jess Cook who formed the personal life and home units of those employed at Goodes Department Store as Lisa’s parents Mrs. Miles and Mr. Miles, Patty’s husband Frank, Fay’s best friend Myra, and Patty’s sisters Joy and Dawn respectively. All of whom were able to demonstrate what makes a real family, how there may be times you want to kill each other but you’d kill for them all the time and this to me is something I struggle to find in shows with familial units these days and it makes these roles all the more prominent and realistic and I commend all of these performers for achieving such a difficult task with caring and compassionate portrayals that showed the community how family should be done on stage. Llaaneath Poor and Aislinn Ryan captured our hearts as Fay and Patty, two women down on their luck with love but still persevered and rediscovered who they were as individuals on their way back, and they both delivered inspiring and invigorating performances that had us rooting for them whenever they appeared in any given scene as they reminded us that true love always returns to us, is worth the wait and comes to those when you least expect it. Next, we focus on two pioneering ladies in charge of certain areas of Goodes, Miss Cartwright and Miss Jacobs who were memorably and masterfully portrayed by Maree Barnett (who also tackled the role of Patty’s mother Mrs. Crown) and Catherine Christensen (covering for an ill Dianne Mileo who I’m sure will be equally as great when she returns); both ladies were like feminist heroes throughout the story as they pointed out the strength, smarts, spirit and sisterhood every woman possesses with their phenomenal work ethic, their ability to keep moving forward after unimaginable loss and their focus on raising up their fellow women from younger generations to be the best they can be just like they did, moving us all with their kindness and camaraderie.
Two of the biggest standouts of the night were the performances given by Elise Moorhouse and James Antonas as Goodes high fashion expert and manager Magda and her husband Stefan, who not only possessed convincing European accents and mannerisms in their respective characterisations but also the mentorship and guidance we as human beings must give each other to become the best versions of ourselves and returning the favour down the line. Moorhouse and Antonas were the definitive role models we either wanted or aspired to be as they taught their employees and the audience some valuable life lessons through the goodness of their hearts in almost semi-autobiographical fashion, resulting in legendary and loyal performances that could stand the test of time. As biased as this next part may sound, the king and queen of the production to me were two performers who I’ve had the pleasure of working with previously on two separate occasions but their unique talents fit their respective roles like a tailor made glove and they were Matt Biscombe in the role of Magda and Stefan’s best friend and Fay’s European suitor Rudy and Rafaela Cleeve Gerkens in the role of our protagonist and leading lady in black Lisa Miles. Biscombe could easily be labelled as an incurable romantic in his beautiful, brilliant and blessed characterisation with each line delivered like a promise and each lyric like a serenade and by the time the night was over, we were head over heels in love with him just like Fay was especially with a performance that demonstrated the chivalry a changed man possesses and the maturity and sensitivity a real man must have to gain the trust, respect and love of any partner for a real connection. As for her portrayal of a promising young woman ready to spread her wings and fly, Cleeve Gerkens was sweet, smart and sophisticated as we the audience got to witness Lisa grow into her own independent individual through her experiences at Goodes and her empowering academic achievements so flawlessly, it was like she was telling her own life story; with Disney princess-esque vocal chops and acting that represented young women everywhere willing to march to the beat of their own drum to boot, Cleeve Gerkens gave the show its guiding light and proved that women will always stand strong and proud on their own two feet to achieve every aspiration they have in life, like the song says, sisters are doing it for themselves.
In conclusion, I have a feeling that with their take on Ladies In Black, Heidelberg Theatre Company can begin a brand new chapter in their highly celebrated and decorated history, especially when they demonstrated their previously undiscovered musical theatre skills as flawlessly as this. Featuring glamorous costume designs that would be fit for the classic era of Hollywood, prod team work that placed powerful women on the pedestals where they truly belong and a cast that enforced the production’s feminist message through each individual performance, Ladies In Black was the greatest of starts to the company’s musical journey and I greatly anticipate what spectacles Heidelberg has to offer both the theatre and musical theatre world in the new year. Special shoutout to Rafaela Cleeve Gerkens and Matt Biscombe for their brilliant performances in the production, to Dianne Mileo, get well soon, to my sister Bronwyn Etheridge for giving me the 2023 season pass for the company last Christmas and introducing me to this brilliant company and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Ladies In Black for their revolutionary efforts in the company and don’t forget to support the company and local theatre. Congratulations Heidelberg on a stylish opening night, chookas for the rest of your run, always be happy and keep stepping towards that whole other world when tomorrow becomes today.