Though original Australian musicals are not rare, those which manage to successfully capture the Australian psyche certainly are. Winging My Way to the Top is on the verge of being such a musical, which, after a rather bumpy gestation period, finally received its world premiere at the Q in Queanbeyan.
It would be easy to go on about what’s wrong with this show, especially the opening night performance, but it’s much more interesting to concentrate on what’s right about it. Karen Strahan and Jill Walsh have managed to come up with an exuberant show in the best Australian vaudeville tradition. The characters live. The gags are funny, often wildly so.
The songs are tuneful and catchy and the story has the potential to be really engaging as it follow the travails of three middle-aged sisters, who, 20 years earlier, almost made it big as The Diamond Sisters, with a minor hit song My Chocolate Heart Has Melted.
An on-stage incident during the Tamworth Music Festival abruptly ended their careers and although Beryl (Jill Walsh) and Ruby (Karen Strahan) have married and gotten on with their lives, the youngest sister Pearl (Leisa McClelland) has never given up on her childhood dream of becoming a singing star.
Gordon Nicholson, who took over the role of director at short notice, also plays Charlie Cheapside, a struggling furniture salesman and the husband of the eldest sister, Pearl. Nicholson is a brilliant comic, very much in the long line of such renowned Australian vaudeville baggy pants comedians as Joe Lawman, George Wallace Snr, Bobby Le Brun and Lucky Grills.
Rude, crude and irresistibly funny, Nicholson dominates the stage in all his scenes. He gets stiff competition from Jill Walsh who is quite marvellous as his garrulous and gutsy wife Pearl. The innate Australianness of their combative, rough and affectionate relationship is deliciously captured and very funny to watch.
Unfortunately the strain of the dual roles of actor and director took its toll on Nicholson who dried on several occasions. Although his experience allowed him to cover the dries with aplomb, his fellow actors were not quite so skilful and their confusion was often painfully evident. John Kelly, as the successful but definitely dodgy investment broker and husband of Ruby Diamond, Godfrey Goldsmith, teamed well with Nicholson for two amusing songs Remote Control and The Bronding Song.
The rest of the principals are members of successful Canberra professional singing ensembles, so it is no surprise that their excellent singing, rather than their acting, is one of the strengths of this production, especially when they’re backed by John Black’s terrific seven piece band and classy musical arrangements.
Gaye Reid was delightfully unconvincing as the former Solid Gold Dancer, Phyllis Jones, especially in the production number Solid Nugget Blues when she hilariously loses the plot during the frenetic dance routine. Karen Strahan shines in the title number Winging My Way to the Top, and Leisa McClellan has her best moment with the silly-enough-to-be-a hit-song Beep Beep.
Angela Lount, adds to the fun as the Goldsmith’s voluptuous French maid and domestic E.A., Vivyen, and has her own solo My Name is Vivyen, but it is when she joins Strahan, McClellan, Walsh and Reid for possibly the best song in the show, a beautiful ballad, All I Have Is Me that her warm contralto really thrills.
A troupe of dancers add razzle dazzle to several numbers and double as barbecue party friends. However their presence also highlights the lack of dance skills among the principals who look uncomfortable and ill-at-ease in the song and dance numbers. Wayne Shepherd’s double-roomed setting is attractive, but the actors often appeared cramped in the first act, and there were clumsy set-changes in the second act.
Nicholson’s direction style is very much rooted in his theatre restaurant background, and he and his production team achieved a great deal in the short rehearsal period available to bring this new musical to fruition. However music theatre requires more polish and on opening night the production appeared under-rehearsed, the pace was erratic and there are still some unsolved dramaturgical issues. Pace and polish will no doubt improve with further performances, and hopefully the dramaturgical issues will be sorted.
None of this seemed to worry the first-night audience who gave every sign of being greatly entertained and screamed with laughter throughout, and at the final curtain rewarded the show with a standing ovation.
Winging My Way to the Top
The Q Theatre, 253 Crawford St, Queanbeyan, NSW
Performance: Thursday 8 May 2014
Season continues to 17 May 2014
For more information, visit: www.theq.net.au for details.
Review: Bill Stephens