BWW Review: BRAN NUE DAE at The Regal Theatre
It's been 30 years since Bran Nue Dae was first brought to the stage at UWA's Octagon Theatre for the 1990 Festival of Perth. Its full-circle return to Perth brings the groundbreaking musical to The Regal Theatre in Subiaco, as an Opera Conference Production in association with Perth Festival. For those of us who weren't around in Perth in '90, and who have only come to know the musical through the film version made in 2009, this revival is timely and sorely needed.
The show opens with a solo number which has, up until now, been considered too risky and sensitive to be performed - "An Acceptable Coon." You can probably tell from the song's title what the risk involves; but as Ernie Dingo mentioned in the Q&A directly after the performance I attended, Jimmy Chi wanted to reappropriate the racial slur and remove the sting out of it by using it first before the racist next door did. Delivered soulfully and sensitively by the self-taught Queensland performer Marcus Corowa, it's a bit of a mournful start to what is actually a joyfully optimistic show. The irony is that the ideas in the song have not aged a day in thirty years - the Aboriginal struggle for justice has sadly not moved very much forward since the song was first written. It's a sober point to make at the outset, but one that dearly needs to be made.
This is a musical for young folks, a coming-of-age and coming home story filled with fun and hijinks; it's high energy, due to a bounding and eclectic score by the late Jimmy Chi. He flexes his chops with so many different genres: reggae, country, gospel, ragtime and more, and every song is a gold-standard hummable number. He didn't write a lot of music theatre belters, he just wrote good tunes that can be sung and danced to by anyone who is willing to connect with the music. Not only were the performers clearly connecting, but several audience members around me were too.
The cast is quite brilliant across the board, as are the ensemble; the aforementioned Corowa is so very sweet as the wide-eyed adolescent Willie, with a set of vocal cords to match, and Callan Purcell has a warm and generous stage presence as Slippery. His partner Marijuana Annie is played by Danielle Sibosado, who came into the role as an understudy, and though she claimed in the Q&A to be a musician by profession, not an actor, she certainly carries the role off. Teresa Moore as Rosie is as lovely as any girl-next-door love interest can be, and though she claims not to be a singer, her voice is strong and clear. The role of Rosie is underwritten, but she makes the most of it.
Of course, what would Bran Nue Dae be without Ernie Dingo as Uncle Tadpole? He originated the role, reprised it in the film, and has now revived it for its current tour. He knows the story and the character through and through, and he seems to carry on Jimmy Chi's legacy in the hope that the show will continue to find new life and new audiences even after this current tour has wrapped. I can't imagine who will carry on Dingo's legacy once he's ready to part ways with Tadpole, but what a joy it was to be with him in the role now. Dingo is the kind of performer who lets you feel like you're sitting beside him on stage with his smoky singing voice and wry humour; he seems like someone you have known all your life.
The choreography by Tara Cower is a high-energy blend of traditional dance with musical theatre. Mark Thompson's set and costumes put us right inside a fading photograph of 60s Broome, showing snapshots of historical photographs and actual landscapes on the backdrop. The band is spotlessly clean with their cues, but always manages to sound like a group you'd go and listen to on a Saturday night at Fremantle Arts Centre.
I would like to attempt to convey the emotional impact that the ensemble makes when they all sing in chorus, especially when they're singing lines like "Is this the end of our people?" but I'm afraid I just can't do it justice. There's something so profoundly moving at witnessing a stage full of young, vibrant Aboriginal performers singing their hearts out to such important material; it is so rare and so desperately needed. I could not help but wish, as I sat amongst the crowd of pensioners and teenage students on excursion, that The Regal's stage looked and sounded like this more often.
Bran Nue Dae runs from 6 - 15 February 2020 at The Regal Theatre.