Between them, first-time playwright Tony Briggs, director Wesley Enoch and a spirited cast deliver a sometimes thought-provoking, often funny, always engaging "putting-on-a-show" musical about a black Aussie girl-group touring Vietnam in the late 1960s. What the piece might lack in dramatic depth or social critique, it more than compensates for in a niftily staged presentation.

Between them, first-time playwright Tony Briggs, director Wesley Enoch and a spirited cast deliver a sometimes thought-provoking, often funny, always engaging “putting-on-a-show” musical about a black Aussie girl-group (the eponymous Sapphires) touring Vietnam in the late 1960s. What the piece might lack in dramatic depth or social critique, it more than compensates for in a niftily staged presentation that will have auds tapping toes, snapping fingers and generally bopping along to a veritable jukebox of Motown and soul classics.

A slender but serviceable plot, inspired by Briggs’ mother’s experiences, introduces four fictionalized singing siblings: Kay (Lisa Flanagan); Cynthia (Deborah Mailman); the youngest, pregnant Julie (Ursula Yovich); and the ultra-responsible eldest, Gail (Rachel Maza).

Presented at a local 1968 talent quest as “the swingingest soul sisters straight from country New South Wales,” the group performs rousing renditions of “He’s So Fine” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” They’re immediately snapped up by small-time entrepreneur Dave (Stephen Lovatt) to entertain the troops in Vietnam.

Various emotional complications ensue on the rough and rugged jungle road, itself vividly evoked via a moodily lit swivel-stage that activates a spinning scaffolded centerpiece housing a highly charged, five-man backup band.

Kay falls for hunky African-American sergeant Robby (Chris Kirby), who amusingly happens to “drop by” (initially on a copter ladder, later by parachute), while Cynthia reluctantly re-encounters conscriptee Jimmy (Wayne Blair), who jilted her back home. Julie befriends Joey (Aljin Abella), a venal young Vietnamese camp follower; and the altogether sterner Gail exchanges hot-and-cold, slow-burn banter with tour organizer Dave.

What saves onstage proceedings from soap-style slightness, however, is some genuinely felt thesping from the whole ensemble. Prolific screen favorite Mailman is ingratiating and, at times, quite hilarious; Flanagan moves stylishly, making something memorable out of a nothing role; and Lovatt movingly finds his bigger, better self as the white male “gubber” having to deal with this feisty indigenous foursome.

However, overriding all histrionics and ideological pointers is the terrifically energized treatment of funky pop/rock standards that thunderously convey the frenetically escapist tone and temper of those tumultuous sociopolitical times. Vocalizing (in particular the loud-lunged Yovich) and gesturally syncopated body language are winningly right-on, likewise the spangly gowns and gaudy outfits that adorn the quartet.

Amidst superbly interpreted hits such as “Higher and Higher,” “Stop in the Name of Love” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” one haunting, traditional Aboriginal song, “Ngarra Burra Ferra,” chanted in exquisite a cappella mode by the girls over the phone to their mum back in Australia, offers a tunefully telling critique of the all-pervasive U.S. cultural imperialism surrounding this tiny but precious moment.

But it’s the big-hearted enthusiasm of this extremely likable entertainment that lingers, appealing, as it will, to everyone from older baby boomers to curious twentysomethings. The show’s guaranteed exportability is even predicted by the eagerly enterprising Dave, when he tells the girls after seeing their act, “Youse have got the talent to go international!”

The Sapphires

Victorian Arts Center Playhouse, Melbourne; 849 Seats; A$63.70 ($51.50) Top

Production

A Melbourne Theater Company presentation of a musical in two acts by Tony Briggs. Directed by Wesley Enoch. Music director, Peter Farnan. Choreography, Tony Bartuccio.

Creative

Sets, Richard Roberts; costumes, Dale Ferguson; lighting, Matt Scott; sound, Darren Golding; production stage manager, Tiffany Noack. Reviewed Nov. 18, 2004. Opened Nov. 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

With:Rachel Maza, Deborah Mailman, Lisa Flanagan, Ursula Yovich, Stephen Lovatt, Wayne Blair, Aljin Abella, Chris Kirby.
Musicians: Simon Burke, Piet Collins, Peter Farnan, John Favaro, Dean Hilson.
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