As so many of the current crop of musicals are either revivals, or movies converted to the stage, it is a refreshing change to be privy to the world premiere of a brand new (if based on a true story) musical. The Seekers are an iconic part of Australia’s history, and the worldwide music scene. So, of course, this show contains music that is both familiar and well-loved to many. It also displays the less well known story behind the band – how they formed, what their early career was like, why they split and how they got back together. While the story follows The Seekers, the central focus is on Judith Durham, played by Pippa Grandison. As Georgy Girl unfolds, we see how fame, travel, overwork, love, loss and a broken heart impacts Durham and the decisions she makes. Grandison ably captures Durham’s vocal style, and together with Glaston Toft (Athol Guy), Mike McLeish (Bruce Woodley) and Phillip Lowe (Keith Potger) does an admirable job of replicating the unique sound that is The Seekers. The purity, innocence and stunning harmonies of The Seekers music is definitely the biggest drawcard for this show, and Georgy Girl will be a walk down memory lane for many.
The story itself lacks the drama one would expect of a tale being made into a musical. Certainly their unexpected success could be seen as dramatic, and most of the show does focus on their career development. Some attention is payed to personal drama in the form of Durham’s relationship and subsequent breakup with John Ashby. But major events such as Durham’s breakdown from nervous exhaustion, her car accident, and the diagnosis and subsequent death of her husband Ron Edgeworth from Motor Neurone Disease are very briefly touched upon (although in the case of Edgeworth’s death, still very moving).
The timing is also sometimes hard to judge, as the story makes quite dramatic leaps through time. Adam Murphy plays the part of Ron Edgeworth and acts as narrator as he steers us through the story. His approach is that of a variety club host, but while the real thing can be extremely annoying, Murphy’s portrayal is amusing and likeable, and the audience soon warmed to him, laughing at almost all of his cheesy jokes. His role is central to the show, and moves the story along. The audience forms an attachment to him which makes his loss felt quite strongly. Stephen Wheat did an excellent job as Eddie Jarrett, the bands manager, and Sophie Carter supported well as Bev, Judith’s sister.
Despite the fact that the story is quite light, and lacks the depth we might expect of a traditional story arc, it was frequently engrossing, as if in a live, fascinating documentary about our Australian musical icons. Looking at it in that way, shall we say the ‘less than factual’ interludes were almost a distraction, but did allow more chances for the Seekers music to be put to use. The songs included in the show came under three main categories. As would be expected, most were songs the Seekers had performed in their heyday. These were used in two ways – often showing them at work, recording or performing. They were also used, in true music theatre fashion, to support the story on an emotional level, such as the duet ‘Colours of my Life’ between Durham and Ashby in Act 1. Somewhat surprisingly, there was also a wide selection of music from many genres, ranging from Dixieland Jazz, Blues, Australian Folk, American Country and Pop. These included songs from artists such as Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Louis Armstrong, and they were used to express aspects of the story that the Seekers clean cut innocence just didn’t project – swinging London, romantic infidelity and heartbreak, for example.
The ensemble, in some ways, appeared almost superfluous. Those scenes felt like they were there because a musical should have an ensemble, or as fillers during costume changes. In most cases, the ensemble numbers didn’t move the plot forward, although I did think the Tom Jones number ‘It’s Not Unusual’ did work well to portray John Ashby’s character and ‘Georgy Girl’ gives a lot of insight into the character of Judith Durham. Beyond that, other than when they helped set the mood by portraying patrons in various clubs and nightspots, the dance scenes with the ensemble were sometimes a bit awkward and unnecessary. I suspect the show would have possibly worked as well as a cast of 10. None of the important scenes needed large numbers, and unlike most musicals, a large chorus of voices wasn’t needed to support The Seekers music. Having said that, the ensemble performed well, with a high level of energy, and gave an authentic feel to the ‘mod’ swinging sixties vibe. This was supported by the costuming by Isaac Lummis that made the transition clear, if a little extreme. I thought the Black and White costumes in the Tom Jones number were visually more effective than the psychedelic pink ones during the rest of the show, although they did capture the stereotypical ‘look’ of the era, and stand out in stark contrast to the more sombre colours worn by all of the Seekers, but especially Durham.
The misleadingly simple set, designed by Shaun Gorton, was a high point of this production. At first glance, the stage seemed bare, with only a few tables and chairs for a café scene, and plain grey panels on all sides. Four on each side, with eight across the back, and a second row on a mezzanine. These panels proved incredibly effective when used to support the fantastic lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish. They were projected upon, opened as doors, and moved around the stage to create screens. Along the mezzanine, images were projected that ranged from authentic black and white images from the 60’s, through to silhouettes of TV studio lighting or close ups of audio equipment readouts, or a simple brick wall. Coloured stage lights became even more effective when played across these screens on all sides, or they could remain dark and allow the focus on the quartet centre stage. Overall, the lighting, audio visual effects and use of the set was very effective.
As mentioned, the use of the Seekers music was definitely a highlight of the show. My one disappointment in that regard, was the fact that the title song, while used several times, was never sung alone by the four lead characters. The ensemble used it to illustrate Durham’s transformation, a very different rendition was performed to describe how they did not get to perform it at the Oscars, and finally, as expected, it returned as the encore, with the whole cast. It was a shame we did not get to hear ‘Georgy Gir’l sung by Grandison, Toft, McLeish and Lowe alone in the iconic Seekers style they recreated so well, but those who purchased the cast album will get to enjoy that experience.
Georgy Girl is thoroughly entertaining, both as an evening’s musical entertainment, and as a glimpse into the history behind The Seekers amazing rise to international fame. It is not all that often that a piece of musical theatre manages to inform, as well as entertain!
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby
Georgy Girl is now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District for a limited season before moving to Sydney.