There are more than a few standout moments in Waterdale’s production of The Hatpin, most of them due to the outstanding musical direction of Nicholas La Mattina and a cast of strong vocalists who know how to sing as an ensemble.

 The Hatpin is a tough piece.

It’s tough on the players and it’s tough on the audience. The subject matter is dark, made even darker by the fact that its devastating story is a true story. The songs are not catchy show tunes you’ll be singing in the car on the way home. In fact, they’re damned hard to sing, with their non-linear, counterintuitive melodies and often-abrasive harmonies. In the wrong hands, this show could be a disaster, and that makes it a curious and risky choice for a volunteer community theatre production.

Composed by Peter Rutherford with book and lyrics by James Millar, The Hatpin is the tragic, true and thoroughly Australian story of Amber Murray, an 18-year-old homeless, single mother who in 1892, placed an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald seeking a caretaker for her infant son. Her ad is answered by Charles and Agatha Makin, a shady couple the audience immediately distrusts, but Amber naively and gratefully considers the answer to her prayers. She hands over her baby and agrees to pay a small fee for his care, promising more once she can manage to find a job. Even if you don’t already know the story, you can probably guess the outcome from the beginning.

Despite its sordid story, The Hatpin is more about hope than despair. At its heart is a tale of resilience, unexpected friendship and goodwill. The show’s three heroes are all women who in one way or another find the inner strength to rise up and overcome an oppressor and learn to speak for themselves.

17-year-old Amy Elliott, who portrays Amber Murray, gives an emotional performance as the show’s central figure. While her singing on this occasion suffered a few pitchy moments, her voice is lovely and her acting chops are solid. She is clearly an up-and-coming talent to watch.

Dale Gibson (Charles Makin) and Bianca Payne (Agatha Makin) each bring solid performances, and mostly avoid making caricatures out of the show’s sinister villains. Payne’s gorgeous soprano voice shines on several occasions and helps elicit sympathy for a character who deserves none.

Aimee John sulks and cowers as the Makins’ peculiar adolescent daughter, Clara, at least up until the point where Clara decides she’s had enough. That’s we find out that Clara actually has opinions and thoughts of her own, and that John can really sing.

Easily the show’s most mature and refined performance is given by Jacqui Moore as Harriet Piper, the kindly owner of a local greengrocer who takes Amber under her wing. Moore’s calm, measured presence brings balance to a production that is sometimes a bit frantic and overwhelming. I found myself feeling relieved whenever she would reappear following one of the more frenzied ensemble numbers. At one point I heard an audience member sigh, “Oh good, she’s back.” Just as her character is the most well-adjusted and self-assured personality in the story, Moore’s confidence and experience seems to anchor the cast as she easily glides through her scenes, landing all her jokes and effortlessly singing her songs.

Waterdale’s production is hurt somewhat by the typical budget and venue limitations faced by many community theatre organisations. The stage is a little crowded, the set is static, the lighting is basic. The props are what they need to be. (There is indeed a hatpin that appears ominously in the first act and returns in the second.) The costumes fit and are appropriate to the period. Nothing is extravagant.

Nothing, that is, except the musical performance. Time and again, I was awed by the power and precision of this cast’s ensemble vocals. Man, the inhabitants of this “Twisted Little Town” can sing! Yes, they may be forced by some sadistic choreographer to perform quirky, clockwork manoeuvres whilst navigating tricky melodies and dissonant harmonies, but they absolutely nail it. The group vocals in this production gleam with skill and professionalism. Deserving special mention is the trio of mourning mothers played by Gabi Bergman, Jessica La Mari and Mary McCarthy, whose pleasing solo voices meld together perfectly as they perform some of the most difficult harmonies in the show. The orchestra deserves kudos as well. No part of this score is simple, predictable or straight-forward.

Following its recent productions of Seussical, The Producers, and Avenue Q, The Hatpin is a divergent choice for Waterdale. It is decidedly not populist theatre, and it won’t please everyone. If you’re looking for light, feel-good entertainment, go see a movie. If you’re a fan of character-driven stories and difficult music performed extremely well, then this is your show.