Music Theatre

Driftwood the Musical review [2023]

Returning one year after its original season, Driftwood the Musical benefits from judicious fine-tuning to bring a finer polish to its engaging and moving human story.

A fluid memory play, Driftwood the Musical begins with the opening of a box of precious mementos on the eighteenth birthday of Eva de Jong-Duldig. Eva curiously quizzes her father Karl Duldig, and the story unfolds as Karl and Eva’s mother Slawa Horowitz-Duldig slip back and forth between the mid-1950s Australia and early 1930s Austria. 

The timelines remain intertwined as the storyline unfurls, until they catch up and Eva takes centre stage as a gracious young woman, her sense of self all the richer for having thoroughly investigated her family’s history. This year, the opening night performance is again deepened by the presence of Eva de Jong-Duldig herself in the front row.

A pair of talented artists, Karl and Slawa enjoy a fulfilling life in Vienna, bolstered by the presence of Slawa’s precious sister Rella and Karl’s brother Ignaz. Early festivities centre upon Slawa’s invention of the folding umbrella. Karl escapes the Nazi onslaught by travelling to Switzerland to play tennis, and before long the family escapes to Singapore before being forcibly taken to an internment camp in Northern Victoria. 

Based on the memoir Driftwood – Escape and Survival Through Art by Eva de Jong-Duldig, Jane Bodie’s original book for the musical has been rewritten by director Gary Abrahams. Although Abrahams has not made wholesale changes, there is a strong sense of tension in the story, especially throughout act two as the family attempts to establish a new life in Australia and Slawa pines for her missing sister Rella. The recreation of letter writing sounds decidedly un-theatrical but the sense of mystery and wonder in the unveiling of the past comes vividly to life.

The awful fate of Ignaz and he and Karl’s parents is told with chilling effect, while the long-awaited reunion of the sisters is deservedly joyous. 

As before, the AV design of Justin Gardam enhances the storytelling by displaying key photos and documents overhead, adding extra impact and making real the brutalities that seem impossible to have been real.

Jacob Battista’s realistic set design has the extraordinary benefit of featuring actual furniture and sculptures by Karl and Slawa. Kim Bishop’s authentic and attractive costume designs neatly convey the progression of time and place.

On grand piano, composer Anthony Barnhill performs and musically directs his score, along with Roy Theaker on violin and Karina Krusteva on cello. Practically through-composed, Barnhill’s lovely music provides constant atmosphere through delicate underscoring. The performers switch from spoken to sung word with effortless aplomb. Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is wonderfully natural. 

Barnhill’s lyrics include well developed through lines, such as “Everyone Needs Shelter” relating to folding umbrellas and war refugees, and “Something Missing” referring to the lack of relatives at Eva’s eighteenth birthday as well as Karl and Eva’s feelings when they have a child some seven years into their marriage. 

A set of strong singing actors, the cast members work closely together to  generate palpable warmth and vivacious energy. The cast is quick to engage audience affection, making the darker developments all the more moving and the eventual triumphs all the more uplifting. 

Returning to the cast are Anton Berezin as Karl Duldig, Tania de Jong as Slawa Horowitz-Duldig, and Michaela Burger as Slawa’s dear sister Rella. The tight ensemble cast is completed for this season by Bridget Costello as Eva and Nelson Gardner as Karl’s brother Ignaz and other roles. 

Berezin brings a grounded nobility to Karl, drawing audience sympathy without seeking any pity. Daughter of Eva and creator of the musical, de Jong brings all the joy and pain of generations of her family to her performance. Burger remains a vivacious delight, giving an even stronger performance in Rella’s difficult later life.

Gardner crisply distinguishes his roles, achieving real pathos when Ignaz “appears” to tell of the plight of he and his parents.

A charismatic stage presence, Costello proves a real find, bringing abundant heart and soul to young Eva. Blessed with a sweet soprano and an equally attractive speaking voice, Costello immerses herself in Eva’s search for the story in her family’s keepsakes, playing a key role in keeping the story at its compelling best. 

An Australian musical of impressive quality and innate humanity, Driftwood the Musical deserves every success as it spreads its inspiring message of joy and hope. 

Man in Chair reviewed the 2022 season of Driftwood the Musical.

Driftwood the Musical plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 20 May 2023. For tickets, click here.

Driftwood the Musical plays at Glen Street Theatre Sydney 24-28 May 2023, Riverside Parramatta 31 May – 4 June 2023, Eternity Playhouse, Sydney 7-18 June 2023. For tickets, click here.

Photos: James Terry

Categories: Music Theatre, Reviews

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