Review by Carly Fisher
It’s not often enough that we get to see the words ‘New Australian Musical’ advertised by any of our mainstage, funded companies in Sydney - in recent years you’d be hard pressed to find more than four to note. So, when Bell Shakespeare announced that this year it would produce its first musical, a new pop-filled banger inspired by the Bard’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, there was understandable excitement and anticipation…The Lovers is the hot ticket to get right now and for many reasons, deservedly so.
Laura Murphy is the mastermind behind this new interpretation of the Shakespearean classic that sees the characters paired down to just the primary 6 - Oberon and Puck for the fairies, Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius as the confused young lovers that get caught in some bewildering magic. It’s a clever decision to center the show around the young lovers and speaks volumes about Murphy’s wise choice to pair her pop-focused soundtrack with a story that feels just as appropriate being of millennials as it does of Shakespeare’s time.
As Helena, Natalie Abbott absolutely steals the stage. Endearing and yet feisty, Abbott’s Helena was not just well balanced and offered clever character growth by Abbott, but was also sung to perfection. Musical theatre fans will know Abbott from Muriel’s Wedding (one of those other 4 new Australian musicals I mentioned above…) and if being part of new developments and taking center stage in Aussie musicals is something that Abbott is going to be known for, our industry is in safe hands.
Blake Appelqvist has too become known for their participation in new Australian musicals and again, makes you sit back, thrilled with the very capable talents our industry is being led by. Appelqvist hits every note to perfection in this show and their fan base clearly has followed them over to The Lovers because the audience went wild for every little move that Appelqvist made.
It’s been a big year for Brittanie Shipway. 2022 has seen Shipway stage two of her own plays in major companies in Sydney and Melbourne and now she takes on one of the lead roles as Hermia. She is an exciting talent to watch! Of the four lover leads, Jerrod Smith as Lysander is the only one I was not familiar with prior to The Lovers, but with a fabulous execution of this role, I certainly look forward to seeing Smith take to the stage again!
Rounding out the cast, Stellar Perry and Monique Sallé play the fantastical ferries - Oberon and Puck respectively. Sallé brings the necessary cheek to pull off the mischievous Puck and whilst vocally she delivers, there is something perhaps less developed about this character than the others and it makes Puck hard to really want to like. You can see Sallé working hard to get and keep the audience on side. Perry has the show’s number one earworm and whilst it is sung with precision, for me, Perry had the least stage command of the cohort.
The design of the show is hit and miss - in Act 1 the set felt quite bare and a bit static due to the clunky individual settings each inhabiting their own space of the stage. In Act 2, the design was improved drastically, and though things quickly dissolved into quite a mess, it was done so with precision behind the execution. The costumes too - whilst I really liked the mix of Shakespearean costumes and modern clothing, perhaps there were just a few too many costume changes than what was necessary. The design - both production and costume - felt as though it was suffering from an insufficient budget and I hope that when this show is given a longer life (and I say when very deliberately because I am sure that this is only the beginning for The Lovers), a bit more of an investment is made into the appearance of the show.
Trent Suidgeest’s lighting too is filled with hits but has a few misses - whilst for the most part I was really excited by the clever use of lighting to create the magic forest, to remind us that time and location were transient and to bring the bright pink millennial hues into this show, in Act 2, the aggressive strobe/flash techniques were painful for the audience.
Yvette Lee’s choreography was strong - particularly the snake dance - I would have liked to have seen even more choreo throughout. Shaun Rennie’s direction was not the strongest I have seen from him but with an extensive and impressive resume, it is hard always to match up. I think that the inconsistencies in the cast and their stage experience may have played into this but overall the show felt a little rushed in Act 2 and a bit ‘chopsy’ in the use of the stage throughout. All the same, a show like this is only pulled off as well as it was with a director like Rennie at the helm!
But of course, it is Laura Murphy that emerges from this as the true star and someone to watch carefully to see what comes next. I very much hope this is the start of a great number of musicals to come from her pen. Her musical instincts are spot on and I cannot wait to see what she creates next when she has more room for flexibility in the book of the show as well. Even so, the reason people have been excited for this new musical all year has been because of Murphy - a young, Aussie female writing a new musical that is picked up by the country’s premier Shakespeare company and debuted at the Opera house…yep, it’s a pretty major success story.
So to all involved, congratulations and thank you for providing a perfect new example of just how good homegrown musicals can be. I hope that this debut is just the start for this super fun show and that from here, with the benefit of further funding, development and support, the show only continues to grow and grow…this will be one you’ll be seeing tour Australia soon - I’m sure of it!
Image Credit: Dan Boud