Review: Ladies in Black

NOVA Music Theatre
17 to 26 March

Spent yesterday afternoon in Burwood to witness the long awaited return of NOVA Theatre Company and their adaptation of the Australian musical Ladies In Black, the company’s first production in four years. Over the last year or two, many companies have attempted to present Tim Finn of Split Enz’s beloved stage show but for some reason, many of them have not come to fruition, whether or not Covid played a part. Not only that, but companies tend to do less and less Australian musicals in the amateur theatre circuit these days in favour of more well known musicals that have hit the heights on Broadway and London’s West End, so to see a production of this musical is a new experience for me and I’m sure the same can be said for many others. It’s always a risky move for a company to perform a lesser known show after a few years absence but in grand NOVA fashion, they rose to the occasion and made quite the impression on the entire audience as if they never left the game to begin with.

When it came to the prod team of Ladies In Black, NOVA couldn’t make its grand comeback without the legendary theatre veteran Noel Browne in the director’s chair. With decades of theatre experience utilised throughout the world, it was fantastic to see Browne back in his element and this time around, he truly captured the reality of 1950s New South Wales to warmly and wisely tell Madeleine St. John’s beautiful story, in musical fashion, of one young Australian department store clerk’s glorious summer and Christmas casual season of self-discovery as she prepares for her new life as a university educated woman ready to face the world. None of the musical numbers in the show seemed to surpass two and a half minutes in length, but musical director John Clancy and his trusted band ensured that each number was worth every second of it’s short time, especially with simple yet sweet melodies and harmonies from the vocalists and light yet luminating instrumentations reminiscent of a cool summer breeze on a sunny day. Even without many heavily choreographed dance routines, another NOVA veteran Wayne Robinson continued his own legacy as the production’s choreographer, as each dancer on stage glided so elegantly across the stage like a hand surfing through the wind whether they were a novice or a nuanced mover. The females were like swans ready to spread their wings and take flight while the males were like peacocks ready to display their extravagant colours to impress the crowd, all genders taking part in a dance display that was masterful and majestic.

Each member of the cast had a rightful place with their respective roles whether they were portraying a member of the ensemble, a pining gentleman caller, a husband unable to drop their foolish pride, a parent finding it hard to let go, fashionistas in distinctive high class society or most importantly, strong, promising and powerful women marching to the beat of their own drums. Leading them all, was Aneka Constantine in the role of Lesley “Lisa” Miles and she told Lisa’s story in such a daring and divine way, you would think that the role was written specifically for her, instilling true feminist values and a lust for life, love and learning in an almost semi-autobiographical fashion as the cherry on top of a complete portrayal. On the shop floor, Heloise Meighan and Lauren King were giving Goode’s department store its personality and purpose in the roles of Fay and Patty who both take us on their loving journey side by side with one yearning to find love after one too many bad experiences with men and another trying to save her marriage amidst conception troubles and reconcilable differences. Alongside them were Miss Cartwright and Miss Jacobs portrayed by Amanda Stevenson and Samara Carminato respectively and neither of them ever faded into the background especially with their classy and courageous performances of seasoned shop assistants who have endured enough of their own hardhsips in order to pave the way for younger women and their futures. Chris Stevenson’s portrayal of Lisa’s traditionalist father was a hard one for any young woman to watch even in today’s climate but it was committed and commanding one and his character’s redemption arc made it all worthwhile, especially when it was so satisfying to watch his character grow and adapt to the changing times of the 1950s.

One of the most enticing elements of the cast were the trio performances. First, you had Pam Braithwaite, Matilda O’Riley and Emma Uphill in the roles of Patty’s mother and two sisters, Dawn and Joy, who together, gave a memorable performance of my new favourite musical feminist anthem The Bastard Song and their shared lament for mankind was a highly loud and lively one that had the crowd internally cheering in ecstasy. Then, you had the trio of the eastern European characters who gave stellar vocal performances in numbers like A Nice Australian Girl and On A Summer Afternoon with standout, spellbinding portrayals of Magda, Rudi and Stefan in the shape of Sian Dickinson, Aaron Kelly and Stefano Burato. “Continental” or not, these three performers gave Ladies In Black its fire as they stole every scene they were in with their shared love for Lisa, Magda’s love for fashion, Stefan’s sarcastic yet undying support for his prominent wife and Rudi’s adorable, requited love story with Fay. The king of this production to me was Brenton Van Vliet in the role of Frank, who may not have been as prominent as other male characters in the cast but his portrayal of a self-conscious individual who feels like a failure as a man due to being sterile and starts to neglect his wife Patty in the process was a highly moving one and for someone who only stepped into the role five weeks before opening, it was truly captivating to watch Van Vliet embody his character in a limited time frame to give a performance as powerful and prominent as this one. As for the queen of the production, for me, that title goes to Catherine Bolzonello and her genuinely golden and gracious portrayal of Lisa’s mother Mrs Miles, a woman who is caught in the middle ground between the differing views of her daughter and her husband. Although a supporting role, Bolzonello demonstrated that she was truly a leading lady as she took her character on a journey that most families can relate to and managed to touch the hearts of everyone in the crowd in every aspect imaginable, resulting in a one of a kind performance of a lifetime.

NOVA demonstrated with Ladies In Black that you don’t need a massive scale musical production with big brass bands, actors defying gravity and heavy dance routines to make a big comeback statement and sometimes, it’s the simpler shows that can leave the greatest impression and all it takes is the dedication of an incredible community of performers and creators to make a difference and now that the company has finally returned, I eagerly anticipate what the future holds for a company that’s just as legendary as the creative individuals who helped form it. Special shoutout to Emma Uphill, Brenton Van Vliet and Aaron Kelly for their performances in the show, to Noel Browne and Wayne Robinson in the prod team and to everyone associated with Ladies In Black in any way shape or form. Congratulations on such a special and successful comeback season.

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Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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