REVIEW: DRIFTWOOD THE MUSICAL Puts Eva de Jong-Duldig's Memoir About Her Australian Jewish Family's Journey Across The World On Stage


By: Jun. 09, 2023
REVIEW: DRIFTWOOD THE MUSICAL Puts Eva de Jong-Duldig's Memoir About Her Australian Jewish Family's Journey Across The World On Stage

Wednesday 7th June 2023, 7:30pm, Eternity Playhouse Darlinghurst

In the former Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle the story of a family fleeing religious persecution plays out in DRIFTWOOD THE MUSICAL.  Based on Eva de Jong-Duldig’s memoir Driftwood- Escape and Survival Through Art, published in 2017, Gary Abrahams (Book/Director), Jane Bodie (Book/writer of original stage play ‘Driftwood’) and Anthony Barnhill (Music/Lyrics/Arranger) bring Karl and Slawa Duldig’s story to the musical theatre stage.

The premise of the work is that Eva (Bridget Costello) is progressively learning about her parent’s past, first being given a box of photographs by her father Karl (Anton Berezin) on her 18th birthday in 1956, then inheriting boxes and boxes of papers and letters when her parents have passed.  Initially, Karl tells her about the early days of his relationship with her mother Slawa (Tania de Jong, who is Eva’s daughter), a fellow Polish Jewish student of sculpture at the Akademie der Bildenen Künste Wien (Academy of Fine Arts) living in Vienna in the early 20th century.  Sitting on the periphery of Karl’s memories that are recreated on stage, Eva learns that her mother was not only a skilled artist but an inventor, eventually filling a patent for a compact foldable umbrella design that would go on to be manufactured as the “Flirt”, before she has to sell her rights to her creation to help fund her family’s flee from Nazi German annexation of Austria which leaves the family in a limbo, ‘drifting’ around the world till they finally find themselves in Australia.  After her father’s passing, Eva is left piecing together the rest of her parents’ story by wading through the boxes of information, using the correspondence, contracts and other paraphernalia and as a connection to the past. 

The music of this work is very heavily influenced by early Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber stylings, giving the work a somewhat outdated tone more akin to the musicals of the 1980’s when compared to the modern musicals of the 21st century despite the work only premiering in 2022.  In the landscape of modern musicals, this work feels labored, drawn out and too earnest in its efforts to evoke an emotional response and too focused on a desire to attempt to showcase the classical voices though they’ve been distorted by the director’s choice to have the majority of the singers adopt overly Australian accents.  Potentially tightening the tempo of the music may be able to elicit more honest emotion and hold the audience, particularly anyone more attuned to the shifting styles of musical theatre.   Musical Director David Gardos provides the piano accompaniment, supported by Michele O’Young on Violin and Rachel Valentine on Cello who perform to a click-track of prerecorded instrumentals and supporting vocals which possibly also contributes to the inability for the work to flex and meld to the moment.

The standout performance of this piece is Anton Berezin’s portrayal of Karl Duldig.  Berezin gives honest emotion and realistic, nuanced reactions.  Everything he does is intuitive and natural, never feeling forced or directed. His vocals are textured and rich without turning into self-indulgent or self-aware.  He ensures that the audience see Karl as a real character, and not just a construct of a memory.  Berezin adopts a consistent accent with a European twist to it so its clear where Karl’s origins lie, even though he lived in Australia since 1940. 

As daughter Eva, Bridget Costello initially feels to over eager but settled into the role during the performance, possibly aided by the refining of the sound balances.  When Eva shifts to being older, going through parents’ papers in Act 2, Costello feels more at home in the role.  Having a history of playing the role of Christine Daae in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Costello’s voice fits well with the music that is so reminiscent of Lloyd Webber’s work.  While Costello adopts an Australian accent for Eva’s speaking voice, her use of a less pronounced accent voice for Eva’s vocals suits the music and ensures that the lyrics aren’t distorted.

With Eva only being a baby when she would have last seen her aunt, Michaela Burger presents Slawa’s sister Aurelie “Rella” with an air of being an embellished memory as recalled by Slawa and Karl as she ‘floats’ through the scenes.  Burger adds a desperately need brightness and playfulness to the work and although her spoken voice is more Australian than one would expect of a character that never visits her sister in Australia, Burger ensures that Rella’s vocals are presented with a neutral accent.  As the other supporting actor, Nelson Gardner portrays Karl’s brother Ignaz, Rella’s husband Marcel and a series of other minor characters.  While Gardner’s appearances are brief, he provides a balance to his scenes and injects subtle quirks to each of his characters to ensure they are easily delineated. 

Classical soprano Tania de Jong has the heady task of presenting the character of her own grandmother Slawa.  For this production, she has opted to give Slawa an Australian accent, somewhat incongruous with Berezin retaining a European tone for Karl’s accent, though de Jong’s delivery of the accent wavers throughout the show, getting stronger in her vocals by the end of the performance which actually is at odds with the poetry and cadence of the music and the understanding that de Jong trained as a classical soprano.  It also feels that de Jong is too close to the work, with a desire to honor her grandmother who passed away when she was 11 possibly making de Jong too self-aware and holding her back from delivering as honest and real a performance as she may give for a character not so close to her heart. 

For many years there has been a push to see a breadth of Australian stories on stage so that more communities can see themselves and their stories on stage and DRIFTWOOD THE MUSICAL does this for the Australian Jewish community. Despite its 2022 premiere, In its current form, this work feels dated, particularly with the 1980’s musical theatre stylings adopted but with adjustments to the music and some possible tightening of the script and tempo, this work has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than just those wanting to see their own stories reflected on stage.

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