The Sapphires

HIT Productions The Sapphires AARIn deference to another production currently touring, the capacity opening night audience at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre could have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a performance of The Sapphires Goes Wrong.

HIT Productions is to be commended for bravely mounting this stripped back production of Tony Briggs hugely successful musical play with the aim of touring it to over 140 locations across the length and breadth of Australia during 2019/2020. In some of the more remote indigenous Australian communities it will be performed on a specially designed ‘pop-up’ stage.

It was a shame therefore that despite the talented cast, the three-piece live band, the supportive opening night audience, and the fact three of the remaining five Queanbeyan performances are already sold out, this seriously under-rehearsed opening night performance turned out to be such a lack-lustre, dispiriting experience.

Inspired by a true story of four young Aboriginal women from regional Australia, who enjoy singing country music, The Sapphires tells of how they enter a local singing completion and  are spotted by a would-be entrepreneur. He persuades them to develop an act singing the soul hits of popular American girl-groups like The Supremes, then signs them up to tour army bases in Vietnam. Their relationships and adventures during this tour provide the basis of the musical.

At this performance, Calen Tassone had the unenviable task of lifting the audience out of the sombre mood established by the Welcome to Country, acknowledgement of elders present, and one minute of silence observed in respect of the recent passing of a local elder, performed immediately before the show began.

Responding to Tassone’s loud, largely unintelligible introduction, the four Sapphires, Matilda Brown (Kay), Mindy Kwanten (Cynthia), Lorinda May Merrypor (Julie) and Ngaire Pigram (Gail), make their entrance to perform Heatwave costumed in sparkling sequin dresses, to recreate their final Vietnam performance.

Unfortunately the moment was spoilt because some of the microphones weren’t switched on, and two of the singers missed their marks leaving two unoccupied circles of light indicating  where they should have been, while they performed in the dark.

Rattled by this unfortunate beginning, it took the cast a little while to establish their characters as they bickered and bantered in a series of short scenes depicting their preparations for the singing competition, the competition itself, and the offer to tour Vietnam.

The show consists of a succession of short scenes, some quite effective, but in this production, all performed on a bare stage, with long blackouts separating each scene. The blackouts were often longer than the scenes which followed them, as stage staff fussed over various props, and the onstage band resorted to ever longer riffs in an attempt to cover the delays.

The largest prop, an unconvincing army truck, had to be manhandled around the stage by stage staff in full view of the audience. No theatrical magic in that. The clumsy staging effectively destroyed the storytelling and it says much for the cast that they were able to engage the audience as well as they did.

Each of the four Sapphires acquitted themselves well in their acting scenes but seemed less comfortable when singing as a group. Attention is needed to intonation, to the detail of the unison hand movements, and to actually selling the songs. At this stage it is difficult to believe the original Sapphires would have been as successful as they obviously were, had their presentation been so untidy.

Diminutive, Aljin Abella, as the opportunistic Vietnamese boy, Joe, steals the show with a confident, well-judged performance. Mike Smith also impresses as the bumbling, well-meaning, but incompetent entrepreneur, Dave, while Don Battee, brings warmth, good humour, and some much needed panache to his role as Robby.

There is a good show here waiting to happen, unfortunately it wasn’t right on the night. Hopefully, the company will take advantage of its relatively long season in Queanbeyan to sort out the stage management problems, the sound and lighting cues, and polish the performances to those expected of a professional touring company.

The Sapphires
The Q – Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, 253 Crawford Street, Queanbeyan
Performance: Wednesday 13 February 2019 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 18 February 2019

The Sapphires will be presented across Australia until August 2019. For more information and performance schedule, visit the HIT Productions’ Facebook Page for details.

Image: Aljin Abella as Joe, Lorinda May Merrypor as Julie, Mindy Kwanten as Cynthia, Matilda Brown as Kay, Ngaire Pigram as Gail and Mike Smith as Dave in The Sapphires – photo courtesy of HIT Productions