I grew up in Wonthaggi, a small town on the coast south east of Melbourne, just past Phillip Island. It was here that I was first introduced to and later involved with community theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing our next-door neighbour in what I now realise was good old fashioned farce – shows that required minimal stage craft with easy to access scripts that had us entertained for the full two-hours.
In high school at Wonthaggi Secondary College (WSC) my besties and I broke the mould of the ‘Rock Eisteddfod’ and (not so) ‘Talented Student Concert’ by co-writing and performing in the first WSC school musical. The staff gave us a budget for costumes, the school band, and their endless support. It was in these late years of high school that I was also inducted into Leongatha Lyric Theatre and Wonthaggi Theatre Group’s hub of players and theatre people. My performance experience in these years was awesome and slung shot me into a place at the Victorian College of the Arts, where I pursued my passion for Musical Theatre in 2006.
Over the last two weekends I have attended two performances back down in Gippsland. On Feb 7th I celebrated Leongatha Lyric Theatre’s 50th anniversary at their concert, ‘Curtain Up’, and on Feb 14th I attended the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group’s annual ‘Bend it like Broadway’ concert. These two events happen to prelude a more permanent shift back home, where I start a new full time job next week.
The main difference between the two concerts was heart. Lyric’s 50th anniversary had the ambiance and arc of all great and memorable celebrations. There were speeches and songs that entertained, made us laugh, and brought on a collective silent cry from the audience, who were mostly in attendance because of some connection with the community. The addition of a four-piece band amplified the sophistication of the concert, which was also reflected in the beautifully curated costume exhibition surrounding the audience, and the celebratory collage of newspaper clips from over the years, which ushered us through the foyer. Appearances by life member and ‘rock’ of the company Glenda Smith, and veteran performer Paddy Lanigan, who performed in the first Lyric show fifty years ago, made this concert one of a kind.
Wonthaggi’s performance was more distant. ‘Bend it like Broadway’, an annual fundraiser for the Wonthaggi Theatrical group, is in its third year and is steadily growing. Last year it won the accolade for ‘Best Revue’ show from the Music Theatre Guild of Victoria. The large cast included local talent and guest performers from Melbourne, whose outstanding voices were…impressive. However, the imbalance between power ballads and entertainment, and the repetition of old jokes and the humour of ‘passive aggressive mocking’ left the audience forlorn. The arrangements of Elly Poletti (a genius), and the cacophony of voices that bought them to our ears, were remarkable, and the playful interaction of many, familiar performers onstage preluding these arrangements was delightful. However, this year directors Hanley and Milkins-Hendry threw caution to the wind when playing the ‘bent’ gender swap card. The male version of Kander and Ebb’s Cell Block Tango was offensive. No matter how tongue in cheek it is played, domestic violence and violence against women is not funny – it’s simply too close to home. This song works in the musical Chicago because a context is created around ‘The Murderess’; the question of their guilt, and the part gender plays in their trail.
The interesting component of this comparison is, in contrast to the calibre of its fiftieth birthday celebrations, as an outsider the integrity of the Leongatha company seems to be in question. Over recent years Wonthaggi Theatre Group has outplayed Lyric in its Musical Theatre productions. The team at Wonthaggi are committed and completely in tune with their goals and ambitions as a company. I am being presumptuous, but Lyric seems to be stuck on an obstacle common in tight groups, where politics and egos get in the way of the overarching objectives of the company. However, to see members past and present collaborating on Lyric’s fiftieth year is inspiring, and the level of theatre this collective effort can achieve as demonstrated in ‘Curtain Up’, is hopefully a sign of times to come.
And so, after these two events my feelings towards moving back the country couldn’t be any more mixed. I’m enthused about the healthy, developing and strong theatre that exists, and continues to not only entertain but play the important part that culture has in strengthening and enriching communities; I’m excited to once again be a part of this and to hopefully bring my skills with me, to be of use. I’m also nervous about leaving Melbourne and potentially losing the traction I have there in my own theatre career. I’m excited about being closer to my partner and family, but nervous about missing out on time and theatre with friends in the city. I can’t wait to go for a surf before work, but I know that I will miss being able to escape to the museum or cinema on rainy days, and swimming in fifty metre pools.
Despite my hesitations and nerves, I’m committed to the move, and to doing my best to stay active and in control of my theatre work in Melbourne and beyond.
NOTE – After rereading, getting feedback, and reflecting on my writings, I’d like to make some additional comments. To label this post as a ‘review’ was wrong of me, I hope that the title, opening and closing paragraphs frame this piece as a personal reflection on my current situation as I finish one chapter of my life and begin the next.
I have been much harsher on the Wonthaggi Theatre Group’s ‘Bend it like Broadway’ than I have on the Lyric Theatre Production. Perhaps because I was trying to instil a sense of confidence in Lyric and the potential they have as a company. Both productions, as all, had their strengths and weaknesses and it was short sighted of me to only point out the weakness’ in one production and not the other. Also, one production was a nostalgic anniversary celebration, while the other was a revue concert – making it an imperfect comparison. It was my current situation; the timing of seeing two local productions in my hometown in the week before I moved back which compelled me to write.