Australian musical Fangirls has skyrocketed to high heights in a very short time. It only premiered in September 2019 in Queensland and, even with COVID in the mix, is already onto its third season, having won a swag of awards including Matilda and AWGIEs. Now it's Melbourne's turn to enjoy the infectious vibes.
Writer (and lyricist) Yve Blake's story about 14-year old fangirls of boy band True Connection (with large similarities to One Direction) tackles a host of themes around the perception of fangirl hysteria, teenage insecurity, conflicting ideas about self and feminism and finding one's place in the world.
From the get-go, there's lots going on, both thematically and visually. Large screens frame the stage and project media images, newsflashes and concert footage. Zoom-like squares of talking heads and concert pyrotechnics become extra choruses in musical numbers.
While initially hard to pinpoint the tone – satire, overly sincere, didactic – ultimately, it's a bit of everything in the mix, which makes for a wild and sometimes unwieldy ride. The performances are all so good and a cast of only eight play all the roles, from boy band performers to school girls to newscasters, that even when the narrative falters, the show rolls on at an energetic pace.
The songs (score by Blake, Alice Chance, David Muratore), which come hard and fast, mix hip hop riffs, Broadway vocals and catchy pop tunes, with lots of fun dancing (the tongue and cheek bits are the most hilarious – like the rhythmic gymnast who gallops awkwardly around the stage waving her ribbon when something deep and meaningful happens).
Edna (Karis Oka) and her frenemies Jules (Chika Ikogwe) and Brianna (Shubshri Kandiah) are obsessed with Harry (AYDAN) lead-singer of True Connection. Edna feels she adores him in a way that is deeper and more intense than any other admirer could possibly love him. She even writes dark fan-fiction about him, which she shares with an online community, represented by Saltypringl (an excellent James Magoo).
When True Connection announces an Australian tour and Harry, in a blurring of Edna's fantasy fiction and reality, is subsequently kidnapped and held hostage by Edna, things get complicated. The second act feels slightly laboured in this plot, but this nexus between Edna's fiction and her everyday adolescent reality, work well to scaffold the overall construction of the action.
Over its two hours (split with an interval), Fangirls reveals complexities in characters that, on surface, seem potentially simple. It also travels to heavy places around suicide, self-loathing and family tensions. Jules is obsessed with having a boyfriend, even though she's the pawn in her parents' divorce. Brianna is obsessed with her flat chest and doesn't think she's pretty enough while Edna squirrels away in her room, hiding everything from her single-mother (played straight by Shannen Alice Quan). Blake's writing, both text and lyrics, brings out the nuances in these different teenage anxieties.
Director Paige Rattray synthesizes multiple elements. Short scenes in a bedroom or locker room layer into a pulsing dance (choreography by Leonard Mickelo). The True Connection concert that opens Act Two (audiences are encouraged to shine their phone lights) shifts into the narrative focus of the kidnapping plot. Scenes change frequently; videos loom large; dances punctuate action.
The screens amplify the messaging and actions, proving the powers of mass hysteria and the ease of getting swept up in a group dynamic.
Ultimately, Fangirls really holds together because the entire cast is so awesome, with amazing vocal chops, a diversity of backgrounds and a willingness to try anything.
While it has the basic structure of a musical, Fangirls' style is out-of-the-box for the genre. As typical musicals go, its audience is probably on the younger side, old enough to have some objectivity around the social and gender issues at play, but not so old as to have forgotten the euphoria, the obsessions, and the seemingly strange (to adults) behaviour of teenagers.
And the Fangirl fans certainly are out there... the show has its own fan people and somewhat of a cult following already.
With Fangirls, Blake and her entire team of collaborators offer up a new example for musical theatre. It hits tricky topics hard but still has tons of fun and, importantly, challenges its young performers with multi-dimensional, interesting roles.
Arts Centre Melbourne with Belvoir, Queensland Theatre, and Brisbane Festival in association with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) present
book, music, and lyrics Yve Blake
Director Paige Rattray
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 28 April - 9 May 2021
Tickets: $55 - $85