“Miss Westralia” presented by Blond Moment Theatre and The Blue Room Theatre is a wonderful new musical that combines nostalgic and contemporary storytelling. With the book written by Madeline Clouston (dramaturgy by Assistant Director Amelia Burke), music by Matthew Predny and Jake Nielsen, and lyrics and direction also by Nielsen, this production is an example of collaboration at its best.
“Miss Westralia” is essentially the ‘coming of age’ story of Beryl Mills who was thrust into the global spotlight from small-town Geraldton after winning the Miss Australia contest in 1926. The story is a perfect vehicle to portray the parochialisms and colloquialisms of Australian society, some that continue and resonate today, which prompts laughter of recognition from audiences, sometimes with pride, sometimes with embarrassment. At the same time, the story of “Miss Westralia” portrays the complexities of family relations, but more importantly, it emphasises the personal struggle of Beryl Mills to assert her place in the world as a woman, even under the pressures and expectations of men and other women who prefer the status quo.
The slick production is well rehearsed with flawless scene transitions from the performers who are perfectly cast and play multiple roles. Thomas Dimmick opens the show with a song that sets the tone for what is to come. Dimmick’s vocal ability and range is put to the test and he certainly rises to the challenge with excellent intonation and expression throughout, delivering an outstanding performance.
Helena Cielak as Beryl Mills delivers a beautifully measured performance that begins as the naïve, small-town girl who matures into a self-assured and assertive woman ready to challenge the established order. This inner journey is mirrored by how Cielak sings the songs with her power and projection increasing as the story progresses. Rachael Chamberlain as Beryl’s mother Kitty embodies a maturity required for this role that is surprising considering her youthful appearance. Chamberlain’s characterisation of Kitty is well-developed and complex, and she has a talent for bringing the audience into the moment which works well for this production and garnered many laughs.
Grace Johnson who plays Norma Smallwood, and other bitchy roles, manages to nicely define each one, relishing in the exchanges with Beryl and the conflict that ensues. Johnson is a solid performer who can dominate the stage when she has to, but can also be a valuable ensemble player. Indeed, the production requires discipline and ability from each of the performers as ensemble actors: switching characters, accents, costumes, locations with ease; and as accomplished singers to tackle the many and varied songs in the score. Clouston’s book and Nielsen’s lyrics blend beautifully and allow the story to unfold in a disciplined way. The dialogue and songs provide definitive beats for individual character development that expands the emotions of the characters and their relationships with others.
Musical Director/Music Editor Christopher Milbourn has made smart choices, knowing when the characters need to sing, and when they need to speak to ensure the story is clearly told. Musical direction is dynamic, yet understated, and the piano accompaniment is impeccable!
Choreography by Emily Star is delightful and suitably cheesy at times, but mostly it is restrained for the Blue Room stage. Concentrating on group tableaus with minimal movement based on character, context and/or location is very effective.
Production designer Kelly Fregon and Set Constructor Étain Boscato have created a minimal, multi-functional set with pivoting doors made from corrugated sheets. An ingenious design for revealing the contestants of beauty pageants and costume changes and adding variety for entrances and exits in a small space. Mai Han’s excellent lighting design is put to good use for the shifting atmospheres and locations. Costumes, also by Fregon, are stunning and apt for the era and characters.
Director Jake Nielsen has gathered an amazing team of performers and creatives to bring this new musical to WA audiences. Nielsen has proven to be an astute director who knows how to get the best out of everyone. I hope the production has a chance to tour the state, and perhaps the USA since the connections and the appetite for nostalgia is strong. Though Clouston’s book and Nielsen’s lyrics and direction take the audience beyond nostalgia by providing an opportunity to gain insight into the past and how Australia may progress.
“Miss Westralia” is showing at The Blue Room Theatre until 8 June 2019.
Bookings at www.blueroom.org.au or call 9227 7005.