Review by Michelle Sutton
Yve Blake’s inspiring, fun, feminist pop-musical Fangirls has opened at the Sydney Opera House after an award-winning debut season at Belvoir St Theatre in 2019 and national tour in 2021. The production is presented by Sydney Opera House and co-produced by Belvoir and Queensland Theatre in association with Australian Theatre for Young People. Paige Rattray directs and the cast features some returning but mostly new performers.
The premise of the musical is close to my heart, as I identify strongly as a typical fangirl, with some of my credentials being missing school to line up for Taylor Swift concerts, seeing Justin Bieber at the airport the first time he visited Australian shores and an iconic undignified act of devotion in 2012 where myself and my friends lay on the ground outside Hordern Pavilion to try and catch a glimpse of One Direction sound checking (we only saw Zayn because he came out for a smoko). Fangirls follows teenager Edna, her school friends and internet friends through the rollercoaster highs and lows of loving something and someone so much that sometimes you feel like you’re actually dying.
Manali Datar is a revelation in the leading role of Edna. She blends vulnerability, rage, fragility, despair and hope with a beautiful voice and incredible dramatic and comedic sensibilities. Her searingly earnest rendition of ‘Silly Little Girl’ left the audience in tears and awed silence. Fangirls marks Jesse Dutlow’s professional debut as Edna’s online friend from Utah, SaltyPringl. It is genuinely hard to believe Dutlow is just at the beginning of his professional career with a mesmerising number that he performs so effortlessly and confidently that the audience applauds for at least a few minutes. I could see this turning into a full-on mid-show standing ovation in the weeks to come. It was a joy and a marvel to witness them flex their obvious star power throughout the show.
Upholding the precedent Fangirls set for itself in its debut season, the cast includes performers of diverse gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, abilities and experience. This commitment to inclusive casting is a wonderful step forward for Australian theatre but also truthfully captures the experience of the uniting power of music, especially through online forums such as twitter and Tumblr that connect people from different cultures and religions. I was thrilled to see that Fangirls has continued to evolve in diversity, but then again what else would I expect? The subtle changes to dialogue, and inclusion of more queer characters and performers with diverse body types, means that Fangirls is reflecting and representing the community it discusses more and more accurately. The characters look and sound like people I went to high school with, at a small all-girls school in Sydney. Sadly in 2022 it is still extremely rare to see a plus sized actor on stage, even more so a young actor, who is being celebrated for their talent, personality and playing a fully formed character and not just the object of pity, disdain or derision. Fangirls features actors of all body shapes and sizes and this makes it more accurate to real teenagers than maybe any other play I’ve recently seen. As a fat, overly-enthusiastic, music-obsessed girl myself, it makes me feel represented and seen in a way that I have never really dared to expect from theatre before.
Fangirls The Musical is a love letter to people whose interests and feelings have always been trivialised or dismissed, including girls, trans and non-binary youth, people in the LGBTQIA+ community, and other demographics who have historically not been respected or recognised. Fangirls is an ode to realising and claiming the power and the strength in the capacity to feel unapologetically and to build community and connection. Fangirls’ superpower is that from its creation it has always been intentionally led and informed by young people, thus it will forever be changing and evolving to reflect the voices of the young people themselves- it is a story that will remain profoundly relevant for as long as fangirls exist. And if you have never identified yourself as a fangirl, fear not for if you have ever been a teenager, felt awkward and isolated, worried that you might secretly be disgusting, wished you were more confident or could be somebody else the impeccably written storyline and characters will resonate with you just as strongly.
Fangirls feels more profound, joyful and inclusive than ever before. This is Fangirls’ most powerful iteration yet, if you haven’t seen the musical before, this is your sign to do so and if you’ve already seen the show, make sure you see it again. This musical is part of Australian theatre history and will surely have a long legacy, inspiring many more trailblazing artists and encouraging and uplifting real and diverse voices for years to come.