By Michelle Sutton
The Sapphires holds a special place in Australia’s heart. The musical is based on the true story of a soul group comprised of four Aboriginal sisters, who toured Vietnam performing for the American troops during the Vietnam war. Their incredible story shot to international attention with the release of the film The Sapphires in 2012 which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation. The musical written and directed by Tony Briggs is inspired by his mother, an original member of The Sapphires. The show first debuted on stage in 2004, winning numerous accolades including Helpmann awards for the Best Australian Work and Best New Play.
Briggs returns to direct this production by Christine Harris and HIT Productions. Briggs’ writing captures the time and place of late 1960s country New South Wales, the dreadful fear in the air in Vietnam, and the dynamics between four sisters perfectly. His script is humorous and subtly sentimental in all the right places. His script exposes the racism aimed at Aboriginal women in the 1960s and the oppression that they faced in this country.
The four actresses playing The Sapphires are Ngaire Pigram as Gail, Lorrinda May Merrypor as Julie, Mindy Kwanten as Cynthia and Matilda Brown as Kay. Each of these actresses brings depth and complexity to their characters, as well as a tangible sisterly love for each other. Lorrinda May Merrypor is a charming songbird, hitting the right notes for sweet, headstrong Julie, who we see grow up in the course of the show. Mindy Kwanten steals every scene she’s in as the flirtatious, confident Cynthia. Her solo in the second act, Aretha Franklin’s ballad “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” is breathtaking. Their goodhearted manager is played by Mike Smith. The cast consists of eight talented actors, including Anthony Lim as Joe, a Vietnamese local who has lost everything in the war. Joe’s story is an important inclusion in this play, to highlight the devastating reality of the Vietnamese war for civilians. The interactions between him and the other characters are an important part of their growth and also grounds the story in recognition of shared humanity.
The band is a soul/jazz band triumphantly led by associate music director and guitarist Mitchell Kwanten, with drummer Jack Hickey and bass player Joel Macintyre. Their enthusiastic playing is a real high point of the show, combined with their comical reactions and interactions with what is happening on stage. The hits of Motown, soul and funk are sung with angelic harmonies by The Sapphires and period-perfect choreography courtesy of Leonard Mickelo. The vintage costumes of the cast are fitting to the late 1960s time period and each character, but the performance costumes are weaker. The material and make of the costumes is inconsistent, and is distracting in quite a few numbers. Costume stylist Sophie Woodward has nailed the look of late 1960s style but left some finishes of garments left to be desired. The distinctive volume, height and style of hair on each member of The Sapphires is however a masterpiece and perfect tribute to iconic 1960s fashion trends. Set and lighting designer Mark Howett makes the most of the ample stage room at the Lennox Theatre, mostly with a life-size truck that moves from side to centre stage regularly. The truck proves to be a very versatile set piece, serving as the site for lots of important dialogue to the story and also as a makeshift stage-upon-a-stage. There are so many scene changes in this show that the timeline becomes a little confusing. Multiple scene changes for one day or one afternoon seem unnecessary, especially when it involves moving the entire truck.
The ending of the musical is ambiguous and dramatic. The story ends on a major cliffhanger, before The Sapphires return to the stage in their finale outfits to perform a medley of Motown hits. This is a little jarring, but I could be comparing this to the story presented in the 2012 film, which is wrapped up at the end in a neat little bow. I do feel however that I did not sense the ending coming, as there was no clear arc or crescendo with the characters development to signify the conclusion of the play.
The Sapphires presented by Christine Harris and HIT Productions is a funny and heartwarming celebration of four incredible women. This is a show that every Australian of every age and background should be familiar with. It is not often that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are centred in musical theatre. Tony Briggs’ remarkable play is an important part of changing this. Everyone should be aware of these talented and trailblazing women, known as “The Sapphires” and recognise the accomplishments of the original line-up of Laurel Robinson, Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers. The feel-good hit ‘The Sapphires’ plays at Riverside Theatres for a limited run from 24-28 September. I recommend going along to be dazzled and delighted, and to celebrate the more fabulous parts of Australia’s rich and diverse music and history.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.