Review by Calysta Morgan

Check shirts and cowboy hats abound in the cosy The MC Showroom venue, but don’t let the C-word scare you: Rebel is charming, cohesive, and competent; never camp; and far, far more than just ‘country’.

In Drew Downing’s Rebel, I was hoping for something not too far removed from the unbelievably good Australasian premiere of Memphis: The Musical in 2017, and wasn’t disappointed. Both musicals follow the narrative of one guy who doesn’t entirely fit with his situation, through the birth of rock n roll, to a place where music will always be central to his life. Where Memphis dealt with race relations and the connections between ‘coloured music’ and rock n roll, Rebel begins with country, segues smoothly into rock, and brings to the fore the often hidden realities of gay life and love in mid-twentieth-century America. And whereas MemphisDewey has a raft of people who actively disapprove of his relationship and musical tastes, Rebel has a trail of LGBTQI+ people quietly living their lives while genres shift gears.

Originally conceived of as a one-man play-with-songs by and for Downing, we now have a two-act, one-man-and-a-band musical featuring the absolutely lovely Frank Kerr as David (aka Rebel). There is so much warmth exuded by Kerr, it’s impossible not to love this production: it, and Kerr, are just so damn CHARMING. Any concerns about ‘is this going to be a weird, boring, awkward, self-centred artistic performance’ are quickly trampled into the hay underfoot. Kerr holds centre stage assuredly, metaphorically holding our hands as he introduces us to people in his life; this is not a quirky, amateur production by any standard. Even the minimal sets, props and costumes are well thought out, and tie everything together efficiently.

There’s an ebb and flow to the way Kerr works with the highly polished on-stage band (Aaron Syrjanen, Peter Nguyen, Conrad Tracey and Tyson Legg, the latter also being the Musical Director): at times, he’s the frontman and we are watching a live gig. At times, they’re incidental music to a story he’s telling us. Amazingly, it’s never strange that the ensemble are always present, regardless of what David/Rebel is doing, and it’s never a stretch to only have David/Rebel leading us through the narrative, as the music supports it at all turns. At various points, Syrjanen in particular is given the opportunity to let rip with beautifully proficient solos on both guitar and banjo. Throughout, both the instrumental playing and the writing itself show a high level of understanding of the nuances of genre from this era, and we are absolutely transported to the barns, dives and dance halls along with them. From the start, ensemble balance and sound design were both tightly controlled, adding a layer of pleasure to the aural experience as well.

Any good story needs to have tension and some emotional ups and downs though. Downing has worked these in thoughtfully, as well as using both well-known geographical locations and historical figures (including the other famous rebel, James Dean) to ground the work in time and place. On the back of a solid narrative, Kerr’s acting soars: as well as the initial shy eyelash fluttering, and the perhaps surprising self-assuredness that Hollywood naturally finds him attractive, there is powerful raw emotion from him, particularly in ‘I’m Not Coming Home’, where there seemed to be genuine tears in his eyes. An unexpected knock-out number was the subsequent ‘That’s What the Stars Told Me (Hollywood)’.

Lighting design, particularly in a small production in a small venue, was consistently well-conceived and realised. At this point, the dramatic change in lighting elevated yet another intelligently crafted, beautifully performed number to something which should win awards, be used as an audition piece, and make its way onto albums, set lists and exam syllabi: an absolute stand out. The subtle use of silence to create tension and emotion is also very much present in this number, and actually adds to the realisation that the whole way through, every aspect of this production has been incredibly well timed and expertly crafted.

Bearing in mind that Downing’s previous works were already well received, this is a good example of what re-working a production can do: this iteration of Rebel is slick, confident and without an ounce of excess fat (if you don’t believe me, sit in the front row and wait until ‘Western Bar III’ at the end of Act I to confirm). Bigger, well-loved musicals have books which make much less sense, and scores which show far less adept understanding of musical genre than Rebel, which punches above its weight in every aspect. Downing should absolutely be looking to expand into larger formats and larger venues, and have arts funding heaped at his feet in order to support that.

I can’t stress enough: this production is utterly fantastic, and y’all should be stampeding to see its limited run. Forget a 5 star rating, Rebel has earnt its stripes, and deserves the 50 stars of the US flag, and a Southern Cross constellation on top for good measure.

Rebel A New Musical is now playing at the The MC Showroom in Prahran. For tickets: