for the Perth Festival
Musical Director Wayne Freer
Choreographer Janine Oxenham
Set designer Bruce McKinven
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Sound designer Jeremy Turner
February 10 – 13, 2022
|Luke Hewitt and Geoff Kelso and the Long White Socks (pic Dana Weeks)|
It’s easy to see why much excitement accompanied the world premiere of David Milroy’s Panawathi Girl, and it’s pleasing to report that it’s a catchy, warm-hearted show that understands the simple virtues of the Broadway musical while maintaining a distinctly Australian – and specifically West Australian – flavour.
It’s also a good example of the long process required to take a story idea and a collection of songs and moulding them into an integrated, exciting, finished product.
Panawathi Girl, which began its journey as Rodeo Moon, a hastily-produced season for WAAPA’s Aboriginal Theatre course in 2015, is well down that path. It has a little way to go yet, and this abbreviated Perth Festival season is a giant step in its evolution.
There’s much that is already ready to go; the band – musical
director Wayne Freer Bass and tuba), the legendary Lucky Oceans (pedal steel guitar),
Adam Gare (violin, mandolin) and Milroy himself (guitar) is exquisite, and Milroy’s
songs, appropriately enough largely in classic country and western style, fit
it like a glove.
There’s well-developed comedy too, highlighted by veterans Luke Hewitt and Geoff Kelso in a Laurel and Hardy-style double act as Gough Whitlam and John Gorton –the play is set in 1969 as Australia lumbers toward the “Don’s Party" federal election and grapples with the ramifications of the 1967 Aboriginal Citizenship referendum and the stirring of the land rights. Hewitt has Big Gough down pat (Gorton himself doesn’t provide quite the same comic potential, but Kelso could make reading the instructions for downloading the ServicesWA app side-splitting); their big number “Long White Socks” is a hoot.
Just as hooty are the rag-tag trio of hippies (Grace Chow, Manuao TeAotonga and Chris Isaacs) who also arrive in Chubb Springs, the home town of their friend Molly Chubb (Lila McGuire), who has taken a break from her uni politics studies in Perth to find the grave of the mother she never knew. Isaacs, curly haired, harmonica-braced and folk-guitared like a gormless version of Bob Dylan, is a barrel of laughs, and TeAotonga’s drag act in the Rodeo Queen talent quest is an outrageous highlight.
As he showed in his 2011 Perth Festival smash Waltzing the Wilarra, while Milroy
doesn’t sugar-coat the important and confronting messages he’s conveying, he
uses the conventions of the musical to insinuate them into the narrative. While
in many ways, the plot and characters of Panawathi Girl mirror those of the
Gershwins’ frothy Crazy For You (which,
coincidentally, was revived at The Maj last June by WAAPA’s Music Theatre
students), the evils of bigotry and segregation in Chubb Springs are endemic,
That story is played out by Molly’s conflicted white father (Peter Docker), the grifting rodeo king Buckley (Maitland Schnaars) and the young people of the town and rodeo troupe.
Docker and Schnaars are in familiar territory here, and the two fine, experienced actors give their characters depth and authenticity.
Some cast members are not always as comfortable with the particular demands of the musical – to be fair it was an opening night without the benefit of a run of previews – and it led to occasional awkwardness and hesitancy in the performances.
Not so for Gus Noakes as Knuckles, the rodeo cowboy, who’s rollicking baritone vocal on Rodeo Moon and confident hoofing are a delight.
There are plenty of moments to shine, though, for the young, talented McGuire, Teresa Rose as Knuckle’s sweetheart and co-worker Ada, Wimiya Woodley as Molly’s protective brother Billy, Nadia Martich, who combines ensemble work with the dance captain’s duties, and Angelica Lockyer (who role is hidden behind a spoiler alert curtain).
This is a signature production for Yirra Yaakin, confirming their status as both Australia’s leading Indigenous theatre company and one of the pillars of West Australian theatre. The director (and Yirra Yaakin artistic director) Eva Grace Mulalley has taken the company to the most prestigious of our main stages with an elite team of creatives, including the choreographer Janine Oxenham, set designer Bruce McKinven, costume designer Lynn Ferguson, lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw and sound designer Jeremy Turner, and a stage management and dressing crew led by Jenny Poh.
It’s an impressive mark of confidence in the company’s capacity, and on David Milroy’s rare talent to tell stories that need to be told with terrific tunes, humour and purpose.
I only wish this Perth Festival season were longer to give the cast more time to completely find their feet, but I’m sure this won’t be the only time we see Panawathi Girl, so their time will come.
And like all good things, it will be worth the wait.