Triumph and tragedy. Glamour and grime. Love and loss. There are a lot of clichés you could toss at Evie May – A Tivoli Story, but this show rises above them to deliver an entertaining and moving show that embraces its inherent melodrama and theatricality, and is all the better for it.
This new Australian musical created by Hugo Chiarella and Naomi Livingston tells the tale of Evelyn May Murphy, a 1930s teenage girl from nowheresville in Western Australia who runs away from home in pursuit of an abandoned love affair with a travelling vaudevillian. She doesn’t find him, but ends up carving out a song-and-dance career for herself in Sydney and on the Tivoli circuit as Evie May, helped along by her friend and eventual lover June.
There are some fairly significant twists and turns in the narrative, and given the melodramatic nature of the story, it seems a bit of a shame to reveal too many of them, as knowing in advance would rather dilute their impact. Even mentioning that Evie and June become lovers is something of a spoiler, but part of the show’s mission statement is to tell the tale of a queer woman making her own way against the odds.
She does so in a time and moreover an industry which, although seen as disreputable and decadent from without, could be surprisingly callous and puritanical from within as well. Not to mention wildly hypocritical and more than a little predatory towards the fresh young talent. It is not an easy road that Evelyn travels in her journey to become Evie, and her hardships and many difficult personal decisions and sacrifices in pursuit of her vaudeville career are the meat of this musical.
The storytelling device presents the narrative in flashback, paralleling the past story of Evelyn with an ongoing framing device of a melancholy Evie in her dressing room, after the final performance as the Tivoli shuts its doors forever in 1966. She relates this saga of her younger life to Cole, her faithful dresser, who has chosen this night to display an unprecedentedly probing degree of interest in her life story.
These parallel linear tracks of narrative, one covering the course of at most a few hours, while the other spans decades, are headlined by two different actresses respectively playing the younger and more mature incarnations of the title character. The seeming majority of the action and singing goes to Loren Hunter as young Evelyn, yet Amanda Harrison is no less of a presence as Evie, frequently narrating even when not directly playing out the “present day” scenes in 1966.
Moreover, the perspectives of the younger and older iterations of the same woman blend and overlap at times, their solos sometimes becoming duets. It is as though to signal that Evie is potently reliving the experiences of Evelyn while she retells them to Cole’s eagerly waiting ears. The dual casting of Harrison and Hunter is excellent, not least due to the fact that these two powerful actresses look similar enough by theatre standards that they could credibly be the same person at different stages of life. That said, they do appear a little closer in age than perhaps they are diegetically supposed to be.
It may be a moot point, however, since Hunter is portraying Evelyn/Evie (technically she is playing “Evie” for the majority of the musical, since the character changes her name fairly early) over the course of many years, thus representing an ongoing transition of ages. Both actresses’ performances are very strong, suffused with pathos, but also a lot of humour and verve. When performing parts of their vaudeville acts, they wonderfully convey the requisite flavour of cheeky old-time sexiness, and convince us that this character could have been a star in her day.
Speaking of old-time sexiness, Harrison and Hunter are ably supported (almost to the extent of being eclipsed) by Bishanyia Vincent in the dual roles of June and Evelyn’s older sister Margaret. Recently wowing audiences in New Theatre’s production of Nell Gwynn, Vincent is a prodigious talent who brings some showstopping va-va-voom to the role of June. Yet this goes hand-in-hand with conveying a considerable poignancy as the plot takes her on a dark turn. In contrast, her other role as Margaret serves as something of a dour antagonist in a performance carried with equal aplomb. As this decades-spanning production is staged with quite a small cast of a mere half-dozen performers, it is unclear whether the doubling on display here is strictly mandated by the text. These particular thematically dissonant major roles could easily and perhaps more satisfyingly be filled by separate actresses. Regardless, Vincent excels as both of the significant women in Evie’s life.
Tim Draxl is very good in a triptych of roles, primarily as would-be beau Heaney. Draxl imbues his farmboy-come-digger character with a complex sense of yearning, menace, loss and tragedy, to an extent that belies his relatively modest stage time. Jo Turner is excellent in no less than five roles as a variety of characters both charming and less than salubrious, impressing with both his stage presence and versatility. Keegan Joyce has by comparison a somewhat thankless task in the plot-driving but largely background role of Cole, yet turns in a solid and affecting performance nevertheless.
With simple production values and an abundance of talent under the reliable direction of Kate Champion, Evie May – A Tivoli Story is a promising debut of a new Australian musical. It is an engrossing story with good songs that works well on the intimate scale of the Hayes Theatre, perhaps better than it might with a more expansive staging, should it ever get a bigger-budget remounting. Based on what’s on display in this production, it certainly deserves one.
Hayes Theatre and New Musicals Australia presents
Evie May – A Tivoli Story
book and lyrics Hugo Chiarella | music and lyrics Naomi Livingston
Director and Choreographer Kate Champion
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co | 19 Greenknowe Ave Potts Point NSW
Dates: from 12 October 2018
Tickets: $65 – $50
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | 02 8065 7337