Photos – Branco Gaica
Ricky Truswell (Gus Murray) is a handsome and charismatic Tennessee televangelist with a dream. Every week his glamorously dressed wife and two wholesome photogenic kids put on a barnstorming live show of music and preaching that sends praise of Jesus Christ out over the airwaves. In doing so they solicit donations from their audience of the devout to help them build Miracle City, a religious theme park which will make the Truswells a lot of money, ostensibly to be redistributed in the finest tradition of Christian charity. However, not all is well behind the scenes, and a crisis of faith is looming. More than one, in fact, as the characters will come to question not only their own commitments to this grand endeavor, but also their faith in themselves and each other.
Miracle City is an unconventional musical, and perhaps not one of the late great Nick Enright’s best-remembered works for the stage. Eschewing the usual genre trope of characters bursting forth into song at moments of high emotion to express themselves and advance the plot, this collaboration between Enright and musician Max Lambert plays as an ostensibly real-time broadcast of the Truswell’s weekly telethon show. Thus the singing is all completely diegetic, even to the extent that most of the dialogue scenes interspersed between songs are framed as taking place backstage, during other songs and segments of the on-camera show.
The result of this is a little disarming for those accustomed to typical Musical Theatre fare, as the songs are not in-the-moment expressions of the characters’ feelings, and at a surface level these numbers play like unironic televangelist songs, praising the Lord and condemning sin. This can be a bit perplexing for anyone expecting something more subversive or plot-driving to come out of the musical numbers. Of course, there is more to it than that, as some of the songs do ultimately have character resonances, and their juxtaposition with parallel conversations happening backstage produced layered meanings and thematic relevance. Nevertheless, anyone unprepared to hear quite a lot of religious singing from the American Bible Belt that is played relatively straight-faced may be in for a surprise. This is a very strong production with excellent performances all around, yet it is also an unexpected and challenging piece in some regards, and quite frankly one that is difficult to meaningfully discuss much further without delving into aspects of the plot which are, perhaps better left as a surprise. So be forewarned before reading on.
One of the unexpected things about Miracle City is that it is quite light on plot, presented as a fairly straightforward one-act musical. Essentially, Ricky Truswell is in considerable debt, having used the money pledged by viewers to not only give himself and his family a lavish lifestyle, but especially because he has injudiciously invested so much into his titular theme park. So desperate is he to realise his dream that Ricky is willing to ally himself with a much wealthier preacher, the fearsome late-middle-aged “healer” Millard Sizemore (Anthony Phelan) who has a history of sexual misconduct. Even if Ricky was prepared to discount the accusations against Sizemore as slander, the older man rather unambiguously states that the price for his support is to have Ricky’s sixteen-year-old daughter Loretta (Jessica Vickers) for a bride.
While instinctively reluctant, it soon becomes apparent that Ricky values fulfilling his vision above all else, and moreover it turns out that his daughter, well and truly brainwashed by her hyper-religious upbringing (and perhaps spurred on by a modicum of teenage rebellion over being perpetually infantilised) is actually wholeheartedly enthusiastic about this dubious transactional proposition. This leaves it to Ricky’s over-groomed and saccharinely Pollyannaish wife and co-star Lora Lee Truswell (Kellie Rode) to be the unexpected voice of sanity in trying to prevent her daughter being practically sold off to this hypocritical lecher, especially when some of the backing singers in their show corroborate his reputation for sexual harassment. The ending of the play is actually somewhat startlingly downbeat, and any redemptive turn one might be expecting for the characters resolutely fails to materialise.
And yet… there is something strangely tame about the show, in spite of all of this. As much as it seems churlish to describe the musical as “dated”, its attempt to split the difference between being intrinsically respectful of religious faith while gently lampooning, exposing and critiquing the purported righteousness of the exploitative and money-driven world of televangelism somehow comes off as almost quaint. After the ensuing decades of shocking child abuse scandals rocking major organised religions and small sects alike, portraying an American televangelist as morally and financially bankrupt in equal mesaure hardly seems like a shocking exposé anymore. That a lecherous old preacher might want to marry a young woman on the cusp of legality, although repellant, seems to pale compared to wide-scale paedophile cover-ups within the clergy. And that there is misappropriated money in religion seems very old news indeed.
One of the most unsettling scenes of the play features Sizemore unexpectedly addressing his flock with homophobic and pro-life rhetoric backed by a militant Christian chorus that is reminiscent of the infamous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” scene from Cabaret, and has the potential to be very chilling indeed. Yet when today the real-life President of the United States gives tacit support to white supremacists and openly seeks to repeal legislation curtailing hate-speech by religious groups, the content of this play seems more like a nostalgic look back at the kind of social undercurrents which we have allowed to flourish and bring us to where we are today.
Perhaps the hindsight of these metatextual preoccupations will not bother everyone who views Miracle City, but it is not helped by the fact that this production is not overtly framed as a period piece from the 1990s when it was written, short of a glimpse of young Ricky-Bob Truswell (Louis Fontine) clutching what appears to be a vintage Nintendo Game Boy, and the absence of any updated social or technological references. If this show is viewed more like Cabaret, as something set in the past warning of worse things that were yet to come, these issues could be recontextualised as strengths, but that was certainly not Enright nor Lambert’s authorial intent.
Despite these criticisms of the current relevance of the material, Miracle City is an entertaining show with some fine music and very strong performances indeed. Murray is excellent as the star of the show, his clean-cut all-American family man presentation and impassioned preaching underscore the eventual depths of his character’s slide into making unconscionable self-serving choices all the more striking. Making more of a counterposed character journey from self-deluding moralism to taking a distraughtly hopeless stand against moral compromise, Rode makes an equally powerful impression as the initially risible Lora Lee Truswell, the façade of her Nancy Reagan-esque suits and enormous plastered-on wig cracking away to reveal an unexpected desperation within. Making her theatrical debut, singer Missy Higgins is disarmingly good as troubled backup singer Bonnie Mae Stackhouse, whose impassioned plaintive solo number of endurance and sorrow sent legitimate chills through the audience.
This is an excellent production of a show which is likely to entertain, but may not quite have the punch or resonance which it perhaps packed upon its 1996 debut. Possibly future revivals under a different political climate may shine a more favourable light on Enright and Lambert’s atypical musical.
The Theatre Division presents
by Nick Enright and Max Lambert
Directed by Darren Yap
Venue: The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 12 – 29 October 2017
Tickets: from $59
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com | 02 9250 7777