Long established as a great of Australian literature, Miles Franklin’s coming of age novel My Brilliant Career has been adapted into a bold full-length musical. Through the Jeanne Pratt Musical There Artists in Residence program, theatre professionals have teamed with Monash University performing Arts students to produce this new Australian musical in less than a year.
Armed with an idea and a song, the 2019 program recipients, multi award winning duo (Prodigal Son, Once We Were Here) Dean Bryant (Book & Lyrics) and Mathew Frank (Composer), bring us an alluring new work bursting with character, an intriguing, lush score and a brilliant female protagonist.
Spirited non-conformist, self-confessed misfit, Sybylla, a young woman trapped on a drought ridden farm a century ago, yearns for something more than being a wife – the only ‘reasonable’ opportunity of the time. Unwilling to be swayed by societal norms she channels her frustration into writing and music. With the farm sinking further into debt, Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy Grandmother and finds herself conflicted between the affections of Hal, a wealthy jackaroo heartthrob and sticking with her dreams of a brilliant writing career.
Luisa Scrofani as Sybylla is a pocket-rocket of a performer relishing this gift of a character. She pitches just the right sass and bravado while exuding charm and youthful innocence. In what could be a daunting role, with our young protagonist in nearly every scene, the vocal demands are huge, but Scrofani shines and never falters – In the Dark is a knockout!
Andrew Coshan could very easily have stepped out of an RM Williams catalogue looking every bit Sybylla’s very likeable suitor, Hal. Coshan has a laidback natural warmth and an equally warm vocal – his solo Wait With You is simply lovely. While Alister Kingsley’s at times bumbling, foot in mouth jackaroo Frank, also vying for Sybylla’s affections, is a comedic treat.
Anne Wood (Grandmother / Mrs M’Swat) and James Millar (Father / Jay-Jay) are splendid in their well-defined dual roles. (Not even Millar’s unexpected absconding moustache could derail them) Natalie O’Donnell is simply outstanding. As Sybylla’s mother, who marries ‘beneath her calling’ and a victim of circumstance, O’Donnell is sharp, stern and painfully resentful. Her transformation into the graceful Aunt Helen is beautifully delicate and as always O’Donnell’s vocals – sublime!
The ensemble made up of students from Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Monash’s Centre for Theatre and Performance are strong and focused with some wonderfully exciting voices in the mix. The ensemble of ‘Sybylla’s’, the mavericks of their time, are particularly affecting, costumed in well-designed era specific styling. In fact, all the costumes are particularly well done with the beautiful period gowns adding a splash of colour to the outback tones of the set (Costume and set design Chloe Greaves)
Director Petra Kalive keeps the staging simple but interesting. A collaboration between director and design team has the actors using levels via a series of pianos dotted around the stage. They become horses, carts, beds, ladders and greatly assist in the fluidity of movement. Kalive’s direction has fine subtlety with the moments between Sybylla and Aunt Helen and Hal particularly lovely.
With musical influences such as Sara Bareilles, Carol King and modern C&W, orchestrations by James Simpson are wonderfully rich and Musical Director Ashlee Clapp expertly manoeuvers the small but highly skilled orchestra through this cleverly eclectic and deceptively difficult folk/rock score.
My Brilliant Career is a remarkable achievement. Frank and Bryant began writing in February and had the first draft completed in a 2-month period. After a few re-writes, a workshop and now the first run, I am excited to see how this new Aussie work continues to evolve. From what I experienced at Monash Uni Alexander Theatre, this piece is well and truly on its way to a bright and brilliant career for itself!
Images: Sarah Walker