Ned: A New Australian Musical is currently in its premiere season at the Ulumbarra theatre, Bendigo and I’ve no doubt that this fine show will have a long life as an enduring piece of music theatre. With book by Anna Lyon and Marc Mcintyre and Music and Lyrics by Adam Lyon, Ned: A New Australian Musical strikes me as the musical most likely to convince Australian audiences that music theatre belongs to the world and like its cinematic cousin, deserves our respect and support. The music theatre scene in Australia reminds me of the Australian film industry in the Seventies, when pioneers like George Miller and Peter Weir came on the scene with films that have endured as Australian classics. Suddenly it seemed we had finally found our voice and we had plenty to say. Ned: A New Australian Musical may be thought of as evidence of a belated, but very welcome maturing of music theatre in this country, and I am so glad to have witnessed it in Bendigo’s stunning new theatre.
There are so many good qualities about this production, that I may quickly run out of superlatives. The first thing that strikes you is the quality of the production. Marc Mcintyre’s set doesn’t compete with the cast by drawing too much attention to itself, and Rob Sowinski’s lighting design was likewise deceptively simple yet effective. The sound is well balanced, costumes look authentic and the numerous props are very convincing. Attention to detail really adds an air of professionalism to the show, and all credit to Jacinta Jackson’s production team.
But where this show really impresses is in its cast. The quality of the voices and the depth in the acting talent on show is a wonderful thing to behold. This is led as you might expect by Ned, Nelson Gardner but I urge you to see this cast now, as their ensemble is the best I’ve heard since Larson’s Rent. And steal a ticket to see it here in Bendigo’s newest theatre too, as you will never see a show in a more ironically fit setting as this. If this show does travel (as I hope it does) to Melbourne and beyond, I really do hope that this cast remains with the show, as not one single person was anything but exceptional in their musicality. Gary Young’s job as director must have been made so much easier by his casting, who are almost all Victorian College of the Arts graduates. Young kept all the transitions between scenes clear and well paced. Michael Ralph’s choreography was simple but effective. This was never going to be a show for dancers anyway, so I’m sure this show was no stretch for him.
But the meat and potatoes of any musical has to be the book and the words and music. The libretto to Ned is very simply arranged as narrative, outlining the few key points in the story familiar to many Australians. A few time shifts are clearly made with the minimum of fuss. Ned’s story is seen to be about persecution and social injustice, but I found little here in the way of bringing this issue forward for today’s audiences. The villain of the piece, Fitzpatrick, (played with genuine malice by Nick Simpson-Deeks) is shown as persecuting the Kelly family for purely personal motives, and the wider conflict between the Irish underclass and the English establishment is barely mentioned. Thus Ned’s fate (as inevitable as we know it to be), is seen to be more about his struggle rather than ours. There is an attempt to give his story a more universal aspect in the finale, but this came too late to really hammer home to me why Ned’s legend has been so enduring. If the message one takes home is that we are all prisoners of our fate, then who are our jailors? To have this unsaid leaves the audience as witnesses to an execution, rather than participants to it, and no call to action is made. The dark and bawdy humour that Australians have inherited from the Irish is very well done, though I was surprised by a couple of expletives that I thought were superfluous. Overall I would say that Ned’s book favoured clarity over profundity.
The score to Ned: A New Australian Musical is really going to be where this show endures. Adam Lyon’s score is so well written (and orchestrated), that it deserves to be heard here and abroad. The score benefits from the Irish folk tradition that many in the audience may find familiar, but this does not take away from Adam’s achievement in taking that idiom and enriching it with popular music theatre style and gravitas. If I was to be a little critical, I found some of the rhymes to be a little predictable, but in Lyon’s defence these were simple people speaking simply. Lyon’s Opera major from the VCA is in full show here, with stunning ensemble choir writing, particularly in the song, ‘A Woman’s Hand’ and in the show’s Finale ‘Life’s A Road’. Credit should be given to the producers too for providing this show with an 18 piece orchestra, led ably by Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer. It was so refreshing to hear a show written and performed by a full-sized pit orchestra, and congratulations to David Lloyd and Anne Henshall of Capital Venues and Events for respecting Adam Lyon’s score and not making the compromises that are all too commonplace in contemporary musical theatre.
As I have said before, there is a worldwide renaissance underway in contemporary musical theatre, and I count myself lucky to have lived long enough to have witnessed another pioneering Australian production that challenges the now stale Broadway and West End franchises.
NED: A New Australian Musical is currently playing at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo.
For more details and tickets: www.nedmusical.com.au