Dramatically charged content, stirring, melodious music and terrific performances contribute to a distinguished world premiere for Ned A New Australian Musical.
When a world premiere musical is staged in a brand new theatre there are multiple aspects to cover: the performances and the production, the work itself, and the stage, auditorium and foyer of the theatre.
Inspired architectural choices have seen the features of historic Sandhurst Gaol capitalised and showcased to terrific effect in the new Ulumbarra Theatre. The marvelously capacious foyer flows along an original prison corridor past cells (that the brave can enter) to a range of atmospheric pre-show dining and drinking spaces. The large 953-seat auditorium, with stalls and dress circle, has comfortable seats, good legroom and great sight lines. The space is an incredible asset for regional Victoria.
The prospect of a musical based on the life of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly may sound like a larger than life Simpsons musical episode, yet a quick glance through the synopsis reveals the intensely operatic scope of the material. Focusing on the ordinary young man behind the legend that has long captivated Australia, Ned presents a sympathetic view of life events that shaped young Edward Kelly’s destiny, yet does not shy away from the brutality and impact of senseless violence.
Composer Adam Lyons has created an accessible, engaging score, the high quality of which is cause for celebration. Writing in the modern musical style in which songs drive story, Lyons has tapped into the sound of the characters and the era to write songs that that sound like ones that the characters would actually be singing.
Lyons’ deft skill is evident in numbers such as “Here’s To The Kellys,” which is ostensibly a joyous family ditty but also serves to fill in backstory that Ned has missed while in jail for three years. “Sing! Dance! Drink! Love!” is a joyous celebration at the inn, yet also sows the seeds for Constable Fitzpatrick’s smutty obsession with young Kate Kelly. Orchestrations for male ensemble number “Timber and Steel” capture the metallic clang of working on the railroad, and provide an opportunity for some energetic choreography from Michael Ralph.
“White Dove” is a beautiful a capella quartet for male voices, and is all the more chilling for the violence it precedes. The woman have their turn with act two quintet “A Woman’s Hand,” in which the female characters reflect on the impact that the escalating crime and violence has had on their lives.
Early scenes establish the bond between young Ned and his dear mother Ellen and convey the joyful warmth of the Kelly home. Given he is the title character, Ned’s I Wish song, “Hope of Australia” might have come a bit earlier than thirty minutes into the show. Constable Fitzpatrick, ostensibly the villain of the piece, shares his inner voice in the tender “Alexander.”
Book writers Anna Lyon and Marc McIntyre neatly condense a significant amount of storytelling and successfully establish a large array of characters.
The somewhat extended length of early book scenes pays off in our attachment to these characters, leading to a high degree of tension when Fitzpatrick makes his drunken, sleazy visit to the Kellys. The relationship between a law enforcer and lawbreaker has natural comparisons to Valjean/Javert, yet the scenario here is arguably more complex so as to achieve a far more fascinating effect.
Ned’s journey to outlaw is generally shown in a sympathetic light, yet the death of three policemen at the end of act one is shown in raw, powerful way. The tension of the final third of act one is not quite maintained in act two as the storytelling slows to a more gradual pace. With the Kelly gang on the run, community support grows with their infamy. A bank robbery is shown as a bit of a lark, with Ned destroying records of the debts of the poor.
Lyon and McIntyre experience some difficulties in balancing the need for concise exposition with the creation of natural-sounding dialogue. There is strength in their comedy, as laughs are derived through the natural laconic nature of the characters rather than through music theatre gags.
This premiere season benefits greatly from the guidance of highly experienced director Gary Young. Even more valuable than Young’s skillful storytelling and confident use of space is the palpable warmth of the connections he has cultivated between the onstage characters. The pride and the joy of the Kelly family home and of the local community are seen as highly prized and worth defending at all costs.
Musical director Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer makes the daunting task of presenting new music look deceptively easy, presiding over a large band of 18 musicians with flair, and delivering confident, highly appealing vocals from the cast. Musical reproduction is reliably pristine from sound designer Marcello Lo Ricco.
Rob Sowinski uses an abundance of haze to add texture to his lighting design. In company numbers it can be quite difficult to tell who is sing at any given point, an issue that jointly rests with the lighting and sound designers and the director.
McIntyre uses a rich, textured dark ochre palette for his set design, which makes good use of the height and width of the stage, and clearly suggests a range of locations with a few simple strokes. Emily Barrie’s costume design nicely balances realism with a touch of theatricality, and greatly aids the clear establishment of the wide range of characters by the cast of 25.
Nelson Gardner, who hails from Bendigo, is very well cast as Ned. Charismatic and masculine, Gardner effectively delivers strength and menace with understated effort. Gardner’s vocals have a natural quality that adds to his overall appeal.
Penny Larkins gives a powerhouse performance as Ellen Kelly, proud mother to an ever-growing brood of kids. Larkins never drops the spark of love and pride in Ellen’s eyes, bringing out the best in those around her as well. Larkins’ effortlessly tender vocals are heard to great effect in ballads “Life’s A Road” and “My Son.”
Alana Tranter and Hannah Fredericksen hide their blonde locks under thick red manes as feisty sisters Maggie and Kate Kelly. Lovely singers both, Tranter carries a great deal of the heart of the story in act two as Maggie pines for the men in the run, and Fredericksen energetically captures the frisky naiveté of youngest sibling Kate.
Connor Crawford reveals a stunning singing voice as Joe, with strong male energy coming from fellow young male leads Robert Tripolino as Dan, Brent Trotter as Steve and Will Rogers as Aaron.
Nick Simpson-Deeks successfully brings out the full spectrum of Fitzpatrick, linking the character’s low self-esteem and cowardly dishonesty to his small stature and his frustrating speech impediment. Fitzpatrick’s nuanced performance is a significant part of the effectiveness of the central dramatic relationship between Ned and Fitzpatrick. Andrew Broadbent brings quiet dignity to Fitzpatrick’s conflicted senior officer, Hare.
Amelia Christo beams with delightful warmth as innkeeper Ann Jones, also displaying her finely honed dramatic skills when portraying the conflict Ann experiences when asked to pass on a dead policeman’s watch to his widow.
There will doubtless be opportunities to tighten and polish Ned. To say that the musical shows promise is a great understatement. It is a very long way on the road to being a fully realised musical that a wide range of audiences can enjoy.
Ned A New Australian Musical plays at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo until 31 May 2015
Photos: Marty Williams