I was thrilled when I first heard that The Production Company was putting on the classic Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon in Melbourne this year. It has long been one of my favourite musicals. I remember begging the school to put it on when I was in high school, and being denied due to the need for a large group of male dancers. Possibly for similar reasons, it’s not a show you see appearing on the amateur circuit much either. So for me, and probably many others, my only exposure has been through the 1954 musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. And when it comes to singing and dancing, that is a tough act to follow. What the movie version didn’t have, however, was roots in reality. This current stage version has brought us a more realistic version of 17th Century Scotland, as well as updating the ‘modern’ aspect of the story to create a strong connection to our current world.
This year marks 70 years since the original musical launched on Broadway, so this is a very timely revival. It was exciting to see how the Director Jason Langley, production team and cast have put their own stamp on the production, without losing its classic appeal.
The set, designed by Christina Smith, was simple, but effective, involving almost no set changes, and utilising projections on the scrim and background. The lighting was designed by Matt Scott.
The opening moments occur on an empty stage, in front of the scrim bearing the title of the show. From there, a projection on the scrim is used to transport us to the Scottish forest, and create the effect of Brigadoon appearing from the mist. When the scrim rises, the set contains a raised platform with stairs, which remains throughout the show and variously becomes the town square, upstairs rooms in the MacLaren house, Mrs Forsythe’s house, and a part of the landscape during the chase scene.
To me, the dozens of crucifixes suspended above the stage represented the ‘miracle’ itself, a canopy protecting the town. According to the program, they are to ward off evil spirits, so my interpretation was not too far off. The symbolism was clear, as was the tearing effect in the background as a new day began and Brigadoon appeared in the world, with the rip closing as the day ended and the town once more disappeared.
One aspect of the set that I did not enjoy were the images projected on the background throughout the ‘day’. The silhouette created by the ‘rift’ as it rises gives the effect of a mountain range in the distance, with the sky above, and this was reinforced at various times with projections of clouds by day and a full moon and stars at night.
In between, however, images of the Scottish countryside – a river and fields in the distance, a close up of a stone wall, close up of heather in bloom etc were portrayed. Despite how they sometimes connected to the scene (the heather image was shown during ‘The Heather on the Hill’ for example), the placement, range of viewpoint and scale was confusing and detracted from the aesthetics of the overall scene. This was my only negative response to a set that worked extremely well throughout the story.
The relatively empty stage was often converted to various locations simply through directorial decisions relating to how the actors worked in the space, and this was highly effective. The lighting enhanced the use of the stage, for example creating a more intimate space for the explaining of the miracle to Tommy by Mrs Forsythe.
The entire orchestra were visible on stage, although often blended into the silhouette of the mountains in their performance blacks, so were quite unobtrusive. The sound was balanced perfectly, with no competition between the instruments and vocals, and all dialogue and lyrics could be heard clearly.
The entire cast performed each number beautifully from the very beginning. The haunting harmonies in ‘Brigadoon’, the humour and life in numbers such as ‘I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean’ and ‘My Mother’s Wedding Day’, and the emotion in songs like ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ cannot be faulted. The Musical Direction by Michael Tyack was excellent, and the vocal performances by all of the principals were polished. Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona MacLaren, Rohan Browne as Tommy Albright, Matthew Manahan as Charlie Dalrymple, Elise McCann as Meg Brockie and Stefanie Jones as Jean MacLaren all gave exceptional performances.
Both the costumes, designed by Isaac Lummis, and the Choreography by Cameron Mitchell enhanced the atmosphere of the Scottish setting. The costumes were certainly more historically accurate than were seen in the movie version. They were also designed to be more representative of the life of the characters as workers in a small Scottish town.
Ironically it was the choreography that did show up one costume issue…black bicycle shorts beneath the kilts! They were quite glaringly obvious during the dance scenes, and it seems there were alternatives that would have been less obtrusive and anachronistic; adjustments to the kilts so they didn’t fly up so high, flesh colours shorts, briefs instead of shorts… a range of options that didn’t leave the audience in no doubt whatsoever what these particular ‘Scotsmen’ were wearing under their kilts. It also felt a little contrived how many of the men felt the need to remove their shirts during the chase scene, however, judging by the popularity of the internet trope of shirtless men in kilts, I doubt there will be too many complaints.
Overall, the modifications made by Langley to present a fresh, modern approach to Brigadoon worked extremely well, and will hopefully add to the appeal of this classic musical to a new generation. The performances was one of the most enjoyable I have seen in recent years. Well done to the production team, cast and crew of The Production Company’s Brigadoon!
Photo credit: Jeff Busby