Lovingly staged and movingly told, new Australian musical Driftwood the Musical is as inspiring as it is involving.
A labour of love if ever there was one, Driftwood the Musical is the second incarnation of the inspiring story of the family of Eva de Jong-Duldig, having already been chronicled in the memoir Driftwood – Escape and Survival Through Art.
Playwright Jane Bodie deftly avoids the saccharine, pedestrian traps of a real life adaptation, telling a genuinely compelling story in neat, swift steps that carry the audience along in their thrall. Written in collaboration with composer Anthony Barnhill with lyrics by Bodie, Barnhill and Eva’s daughter Tania de Jong, Driftwood the Musical is an intricately woven piece of musical theatre, seamlessly segueing from charming comedy to moving pathos with lovely music woven into almost every moment.
Musical director Barnhill accompanies the performance on piano, with two string musicians enhancing the melancholic air of Barnhill’s arrangements. Group vocals are a highlight, featuring intricate harmonies that are beautifully performed.
Continuing work begun by Wesley Enoch, director Gary Abrahams nimbly tells an expansive story merely using five performers and a single set. Abrahams conjures numerous scenarios, ensuring that the underpinning humanity of each sequence is the primary focus. The vivid characters are engaging and their inspirational story is affecting.
Told as a memory play, Driftwood the Musical begins on the occasion of the 18th birthday of Eva, beloved daughter of artists Karl Duldig and Slawa Horowitz-Duldig. Longing to learn more of her family’s past, Eva is allowed access to boxes of precious memorabilia. Thumbing through the albums and reading the letters and articles, Eva sees the story unfold before her eyes, helping the storytelling along with snatches of narration and eventually joining in herself as the years progress.
Eva is born in Austria two days before the Anschluss. Enduring the difficulties and indignities of being washed ashore like driftwood around the world is so much harder while protecting a vulnerable infant. The survival of Karl and Slawa is an extraordinary blend of tenacity, ingenuity and sheer will. The wins that they achieve are hard fought and very well deserved.
Set designer Jacob Battista fills the space with a richly detailed set, where authenticity extends to the parquetry flooring. Resembling a torn scrap of parchment from the archives, an overhead screen often displays images of the actual characters, their art and letters and articles in a design by Justin Gardam. This aspect enriches the storytelling exponentially and is a key contributor to many a moving moment.
Further period authenticity is found in the excellent costume design of Kim Bishop.
Sara Reed strikes the perfect balance of narrator and character as Eva, her commitment to the fluid storytelling being a key aid in convincingly transporting the audience to a range of times and places. Reed gives weight to the emotional stakes and this is heightened when the timeline goes forward and she plays an active role in the story.
The presence of Tania de Jong in the cast playing her own grandmother, Slawa, brings a wondrous sense of gravity to the show. On opening night, this real life connection was further enhanced by the presence of Eva de Jong-Duldig in the audience. Having driven the project as original creator and producer, Tania De Jong draws on her lifelong experience as a performer to set aside what must be a strong emotional feeling to focus on crafting her stirring portrayal of Slawa.
De Jong has sterling support from Anton Berezin as Karl Duldig, with the pair readily playing their respective roles across the progress of several decades. A singer of the highest order, Berezin brings the original score to life, with a particular highlight being act two ballad “Beneath the Southern Cross.”
Michaela Burger brings vivacious warmth and verve to Slawa’s dear sister Rella, raising the stakes of this key relationship by developing palpable chemistry with de Jong. Key scenes between the sisters are bolstered by photos of the real life pair to terrific effect.
In myriad featured roles, Troy Sussman brings welcome moments of comedy with a merry twinkle ever in his eye.
Original Australian musicals are all too rare and the invocation to support them often draws on some sort of sense of duty. No need for such a plea here, given that Driftwood the Musical is such a strong piece of theatre in its own right.
For more information on the story behind Driftwood the Musical, read more about the Duldig Studio Museum + Sculpture Garden.
Photos: Cameron Grant, Parenthesy