BWW REVIEW: The Shine Of Television Evangelism Is Dulled In The Latest Incarnation Of MIRACLE CITY
Tuesday 17th October 2017, The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Director Darren Yap and Musical Director and composer Max Lambert reunite to present a new interpretation of MIRACLE CITY at Sydney Opera House. Presented in an era where the treatment of women is in the spotlight, churches are under fire for unchristian behaviour and corporate greed and spending is in question, this work is less a time capsule of a bygone era or an isolated segment of society and more a mirror on the modern world.
Utilising a thrust stage, the audience in the black box space of The Studio become the studio audience of a live broadcast of the "Ministry of Miracles" led by the all American, sweet as apple pie, stereotypical 'Bible Belt' Truswell family. Head of the congregation, the smooth talking Ricky (Gus Murray) is joined by his perfectly coiffed and highly artificial wife Lora Lee (Kellie Rode) and their two incredibly eager children, the 16 year old Loretta (Jessica Vickers) who believes she is ready to serve god in whatever way her father wants and the young Ricky Bob (Louis Fontaine) who is undecided on following his father's footsteps or taking to the skies as a fighter pilot. Ricky is in the process of building "Miracle City", a religious theme park and has enlisted the support of mentor and idol, the cretinous, ageing Reverend Millard Sizemore (Anthony Phelan) who will only come to the party if Truswell will agree to an unsavoury deal, a proposition that most will find utterly repugnant. Added to the mix of Truswell's family and financial problems are lovesick studio assistant Billy Trengrove (Liam Nunan) and the Ministry's "Citadel Singers" Bonnie-Mae (Missy Higgins) who is struggling to regain her life and her child, Euella (Lara Mulcahy) a middle aged no-nonsense rock of the group, and aspiring beauty therapist and devoted convert Charlene (Josie Lane).
Set and Costume designer James Browne has developed a flexible set that tries to take the audience between the bright shiny broadcast and the raw honest backstage reality. Large signs indicate that the broadcast is live and screens display title pages and CGI footage of the proposed theme park but unless you are seated in the central seats, these screens are difficult to see from the side balcony. With only a few sparkles, Browne keeps the palette reasonably conservative with style lines drawn from the 1980's power suits and pussy's bows. Hugh Hamilton's lighting design serves to separate the on camera and off camera moments with Browne's steps and sky panels or Ministry arches representing the studio set and dressing tables representing the gritty reality hidden from viewers.
Of the performances, the most convincing, honest performance comes from Lara Mulcahy as the world weary Euella who won't stand for the nonsense that the others are lapping up and isn't as brainwashed as Charlene. Mulcahy ensures that even though Euella is a relatively minor role, she is seen as a mother making do, resistant to the hype and realistic in her expectations. Her vocals are clear and accent is not overplayed. Josie Lane returns to the role of Charlene, having also filled the bubbly beautician's shoes in Hayes Theatre's production in 2014. Lane's infectious energy is a perfect fit for Charlene as she can capture the stereotypical gospel singer, embracing the belief with full body and voice, and as with her 2014 performance, sustaining that energy throughout whilst exhibiting the wisdom of understanding when she sees Truswell's halo starts to slip. Missy Higgins, making her musical theatre debut is however weak in what should be a heartbreaking role, previously filled by Esther Hannaford. Higgins presentation of the broken Bonnie-Mae is wooden and lacks the depth, vulnerability and emotional connection of a mother trying to piece her life back together, having had her daughter taken away by the authorities when the former addict was deemed and unfit mother. Bonnie-Mae's I'll Hold On should be poignant, coloured in doubt about her own worthiness but Higgins misses the mark.
Of the Truswells, Kellie Rode settles into Lora Lee as the show progresses and gives her best performance when the construct is stripped bare to a desperate mother realising what she has let her family become. The casting is a little odd for this production with the apparently 40 year old Ricky Truswell portrayed by Gus Murray, who looks closer to early 30s than 40s. The age disparity is further exacerbated by the fact that Lora Lee is supposed to be 4 years younger than Ricky but with the styling, looks like a mid 40's version of Kath Day Night if Kath and Kim went to Middle America.
With the challenge of an American drawl, most have taken it to the extreme to the detriment of understandable lyrics, apart from Mulcahy, and the sound balance often has the band overpowering the vocals. Given that Yap directed the highly successful Hayes production in 2014, it is interesting to see the attempt to create a new vision for the work has caused it to lose some of its gritty, raw, honesty. The timing of this new production does however come at a time when the world is somewhat stunned by the realisation that the mindset that Enright captured in Miracle City is still unfortunately relevant, from lecherous men, underhanded deals and greedy churches that retain wealth for the few over the benefit of the many.
Whilst it is good to see Australian works on stage this production of MIRACLE CITY isn't quite the miracle one would expect particularly given the 2014 production is still relatively fresh in some audiences' minds.
The Studio, Sydney Opera House
12 October - 28 October 2017