It is always exciting when a brand new piece, and a home – grown one as that, is launched for audience consideration and critical assessment.
Advertised as ‘a mesmerising journey of song and theatrical intimacy’, ‘Vigil’ is a brand new star – turn which more than lives up to its own billing. Hot on the heels of an acclaimed run at the recent Adelaide Cabaret Festival, this stunning chamber musical is now playing for a strictly – limited season until Saturday July 8 at the Arts Centre, Melbourne.
Presenting a solo act within a theatrical setting is nothing new.
Iconic examples such as ‘The Belle Of Amherst’, ‘Golda’s Balcony’, ‘Hold The Pickle’, ‘I Am My Own Wife’, ‘The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life Of The Universe’ and ‘Shirley Valentine’, allow both the actor and the narrative to own the performance space as one. This is also a format cabaret has been featuring for decades, where story – telling through song is de rigueur.
Employing a brisk running time of eighty minutes, ‘Vigil’ fuses together both a strong plotline, and a dozen original and catchy tunes, composed specifically for the show. With its book and lyrics by Steve Vizard (known for television hits such as ‘Fast Forward’ and ‘Full Frontal’) and music by Joe Chindamo (whose award – winning jazz standards include ‘Something Will Come To Light’ and ‘Moments And Eternities’), this is an experience for the ages.
What’s more, ‘Vigil’ was especially designed as a showcase for the gifted triple – threat, Christie Whelan – Browne. (Theatre People’s own Kris Weber, recently interviewed Vizard in – depth about the show’s intensive collaborative process, from its inception to opening night.)
Whelan – Browne is known for a strong list of Australian theatre credits.
Noted particularly for her precise comic timing, musical roles that have highlighted this innate ability are ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’, ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, ‘The Producers’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, and ‘Xanadu’. Whelan – Browne’s straight play appearances include ‘Born Yesterday’, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and ‘The Odd Couple’.
In much the same way Joanna Murray Hall created her one – woman play, ‘Bombshells’, to promote Caroline O’Connor’s comedic and dramatic skills, Steve Vizard takes a similar path to reveal Browne’s extraordinary acting range as well, superbly contained within one powerful sitting.
Without giving too much away, for anyone who has lost a parent, a partner, a close friend or a special loved one, ‘Vigil’s premise is one to which we can all relate.
Liz, who spends her life jet – setting between jobs, boyfriends and glamourous destinations around the globe, returns home one Christmas Eve to find her mother, gravely ill. Very much a memory piece, over the course of the story, personal choices, sibling rivalries as well as family tensions, are all revisited in searing detail.
‘Vigil’ is also a twelve – step program of emotions, where Liz learns as much about herself as she does, the see – saw relationship she shares with her ailing mother. Further to Vizard’s exacting dialogue and lyrics, Chindamo’s music expand on the moment. Each piece strips back this black sheep protagonist, layer by revealing layer.
Occasionally drawing on the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken for inspiration, Chindamo’s rich and melodic score is very much a collective character study. Meaning, his pieces succeed as stand – alone songs, and combined with Vizard’s words, drive ‘Vigil’s’ gripping narrative to its natural conclusion.
Song highlights include:
- Guilty’, (detailing which emotional buttons Liz’s mother knew to push);
- ‘Barbecue of Love’, (which recaps her father’s disastrous family gatherings);
- ‘Pretty Little Thing’, (when Liz’s mum accidentally upstages her during a primary school play);
- ’37 Photographs’, (about the tense rivalry she shared with her sister); and,
- When You Tie The Knot’, (where Liz reviews why her marriage fell apart).
It should be noted that Chindamo played piano keyboard throughout, and was accompanied with tremendous string instrument sensitivity by Zoe Black on violin, and Molly Kadarauch on cello.
Andy Packer’s direction is beautifully – paced. Through it all, Whelan – Browne will have you rolling in the aisles one minute, and breaking your heart the next.
Ailsa Paterson’s costume and set design choices are deliberately simple; elements keep to a spare and unobtrusive minimum. Props include a bed, a circular rug, a clothes rack, as well as a photo pin board (which, in the story’s latter stages, becomes a significant plot device).
Faultless lighting cues (by Chris Petridis) and sound design (by Quentin Grant) maintain focus and flow where necessary. Tanje Ruddick’s stage management is always fluid and smooth.
In terms of its size and layout, The Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, is the ideal choice of venue. Not only does the auditorium’s raked seating allow patrons an unobstructed view of the action, Browne spends most of the show front and centre, immediately drawing viewers into the story.
Afterwards, I spoke briefly with another musical theatre icon who attended opening night. We both agreed that ‘Vigil’ has the potential to be made into a movie, or at least filmed for television or DVD in its present format, and be hopefully preserved for current and future generations to enjoy as well.
It is special moments like these that make my job as a reviewer both a delight and a privilege. ‘Vigil’ is one of the must – see journeys of this or any year. Don’t miss it.