Beginning in the 1890s, the Tivoli circuit enjoyed success across eight decades. An Australian vaudeville entertainment circuit, its international acts included world-renowned illusionist Harry Houdini, who performed on the Tivoli circuit in 1910. In Sydney, it found its home at a 1000-seat theatre on Castlereagh Street where, in 1966, its final performance took place. The introduction of television in Australia ultimately led to the demise of the Tivoli.
The former Sydney theatre and the revered performers who were a part of the circuit form the backdrop to Evie May, a new Australian musical currently having its premiere season at Hayes Theatre Co. With book and lyrics by Hugo Chiarella and music and lyrics by Naomi Livingston, Evie May is the latest show selected by New Musicals Australia, Hayes Theatre Co’s musical theatre development program, to be given the full production treatment.
Evie May is a story about a fictional Tivoli performer (Amanda Harrison) – a veteran of the variety entertainment scene. Having just finished her final Tivoli performance in 1966, Evie May reminisces about her past with her dresser, Cole (Keegan Joyce), looking back to her teen years in Western Australia. Accompanied by a friend, the young Evelyn May Murphy (Loren Hunter) attends a Tivoli circuit performance in Perth, and is called up on stage to be an audience participant in a magic act. She becomes acquainted with the act’s unscrupulous American star, Barlow (Jo Turner), and the two have a brief relationship that leaves Evelyn May pregnant.
Evelyn May runs away and hitchhikes to the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney, where she hopes she’ll be reunited with Barlow. At the Tivoli, she meets variety performer June (Bishanyia Vincent), who takes her under her wing and gets her a job doing costume repairs and a room in a boarding house. It’s not long before Evelyn May’s talents help her find her way onto the stage and into a starring role. There’s also a romance that blossoms between Evelyn May and June, but it’s doomed to failure in a day and age when such relationships are impossible.
As the older Evie May continues reflecting on the halcyon days of her Tivoli career, it’s revealed she has never confronted key aspects of her past and, in order to move on with her life, she will finally be forced to do so. This will require her to dig beneath the character she’s adopted for decades; to understand who she is behind that persona.
Having the opportunity to delve back into Australia’s history is a rare joy in musical theatre. Evie May is not only a chance to learn more about how Australians were entertained prior to the arrival of television, but an insight into the kinds of people who created it and the struggles that defined their lives. The central character may be fictional, but there can be no doubting that many young woman in days gone by trod similar paths to Evelyn May Murphy and faced the kinds of heartbreaking challenges that form such a crucial part of her story here.
Evie May is a wonderful new work that deserves a life that lasts beyond its Hayes Theatre Co premiere. Naomi Livingston has created a melodic, memorable score that fuses the sounds of the time with more contemporary music, while Hugo Chiarella’s book foregrounds Evie May, rather than focusing on celebrating the Tivoli, and is all the better for it. There are moving moments, terrific humour throughout and a cast of characters who engage us in their stories. Directed by Kate Champion, this is a show well worth the investment made by New Musicals Australia.
As has become a recurring theme of Hayes productions, Evie May is blessed with a stellar cast. Amanda Harrison remains one of our finest performers and her performance here reminds us of that. Supremely confident on stage but internalising any feelings pertaining to the unresolved chapters of her life, her Evie May is worldly and witty, but also slightly broken. Harrison has a natural chemistry with Joyce, who is appealing and sincere as Cole, the catalyst for Evie May facing the ghosts of her past.
As the younger Evelyn May Murphy, Hunter is a revelation. Her singing showcases not just impressive vocal strength and tone, but a well-honed ability to emote through song. From a starry-eyed teenager to a commanding leading lady, she is convincing. Vincent also delivers a winning performance as June, the true love of Evie May’s life, and as Margaret, Evie May’s challenging but, perhaps, misread sister. Tim Draxl is strong in his portrayal of Heaney, the young man Evelyn May first encounters on her expedition from Perth to Sydney, and Turner does well with a number of characters – all of whom happen to be the least likeable in this story.
Anna Gardiner’s relatively simple sets and costumes are all that’s required to generate a tremendous sense of the era and its people, complemented by Sian James-Holland’s consistently apt lighting choices. And leading a five-piece band, musical director Steven Kreamer ensures the first outing of Livingston’s songs makes an impression that lingers long after leaving the theatre.
This is a show that should have a promising future. A slight slimming down of the later part of the second act could perhaps sharpen its impact, but it tells a worthy story and underscores it with good music (which is obviously what is paramount for a work to have legs).
Adding to what has arguably been the strongest season to date at the Hayes, Evie May speaks to the stunning calibre of talent on our stages and the fascinating home-grown stories they should be playing an integral role in sharing.
EVIE MAY – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 10 November, 2018
Times: Mon 6.30pm | Tues – Sat 7.30pm | Wed & Sat 2.00pm
Price: Tickets $60.00-$65.00
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337