Musical numbers: “Lest We Forget,” “We Dance/Shadows Dance,” “The Sunshine Club,” “Dare to Dream,” “Sellin’ Man,” “Dancin’ Up a Storm,” “Let It Rain,” “We Dance,” “I Will Remember You,” “Shake a Leg,” “Shadow Dancer,” “Passionfruit Vine,” “Sit Down Mr. Menzies,” “Strictly Saturday Night,” “Hey Sister,” “Homecoming,” “If Not Now Then When?”
Humorous, thought-provoking and realistic, “The Sunshine Club” explores Australia’s sometimes shameful past relations with its indigenous people by revealing the little-known existence of mixed-race dancing clubs that sprung up around the nation after the Second World War.
Piece is centered on former boxing champion Frank Doyle (Laurence Clifford), an Aboriginal who returns from service in World War II to Oz’s systematic discrimination against its indigenous people, which included curfews, travel restrictions and separating some Aboriginal children from their parents — none of which changed much until Aborigines were given the vote and citizenship in 1967. When refused entry to a dance, he realizes he fought for the white man’s freedom and the liberties he enjoyed as a soldier overseas have evaporated upon his return to his homeland.
This, and his desire to dance with Rose (Natalie O’Donnell), a professional singer and the daughter of Rev. Morris (Peter Carroll), motivates him to establish a mixed-race dance club. But Frank learns that tolerance and charity, even from the well-meaning Rev. Morris, don’t extend beyond his once-weekly ideal of the Sunshine Club. Although Morris is kind to Aborigines, he balks when Rose gets too close to Frank, whose own friends start to resent the trouble he is causing them as he and Rose plot an impossible dream to move to London together.
Piece’s strength lies in its skillful marriage of truthful historical injustices with humor and optimism. Not all ends happily, but in the amazingly effective final scenes audience is encouraged to look to the future, while they may also ask why they know so little about this chapter of Oz’s history.
A sparse set allows for quick changes of scene and a brisk pace, although a shaky opening, uneven sound and severe vocal limitations of a few cast members detract from mostly first-rate acting and a fine book.
Sydney Theater Co. artistic director Robyn Nevin, who three years ago commissioned the piece when she ran the Queensland Theater Co., deserves kudos for “The Sunshine Club,” which has already clicked with Sydney audiences (in the middle of a long-overdue interest in indigenous culture). It may also have appeal for other developed nations with indigenous populations.