Melbourne — Malthouse Theater, a Melbourne company with a big alternative rep, takes a sizeable conceptual gamble with the fairy-tale-inspired rock opera “Sleeping Beauty: This Is Not a Lullaby,” which could convert into a viable cult item. A two-story stage space featuring a peppermint-striped floor, a neo-classical pastoral frieze (depicting a bird-catcher) and a slide-on-slide-off olive curtain forms the arena for four talented performers (accompanied by another quartet of onstage musicians) to sing a multi-layered version of the fabled slumbering-wench tale via a rich medley of pre-existing tunes.
The show’s pop playlist utilizes everything from David Bowie and Elvis Costello to German classical and black gospel, stirringly steering the audience through the emotionally fraught “dream narrative” that unfolds within the interior mindscape of a disaffected adolescent girl (the excellent Alison Bell).
What begins as a series of scenes moving within a rather banal suburban milieu populated by a Mom figure (renowned bluesy singer Renee Geyer), a Dad figure (opera star Grant Smith), and a restive bro’ figure (musical theater-trained Ian Stenlake) soon transforms by the prick of a finger into a spooky other world.
That magical sphere, which all at once recalls Expressionist art, Glam-Punk-Gothic, Jean Cocteau and Tim Burton, evocatively sustains this often breathtaking work of theatrical imagination.
At one point a giant lop-sided Op-arty ball descends, spinning with mesmerizing effect, while later, a suspended screen shows a collage of images from a “doll-girl” Japanime. However, while such moments furnish considerable visual impact (immeasurably aided by Anna Tregloan’s suggestively arch costuming), it’s the music-as-drama and the passionately dedicated cast that finally count here.
The players adopt various, often grotesquely menacing guises amidst all the metaphorically laden mayhem of a young woman’s psycho-sexual reveries, driving the piece on with the emotionally charged, ensemble connection.
Directed with considered flair by co-devisor Michael Kantor (the company’s artistic director), this audacious theater event is way beyond the standard “jukebox-ical,” and might well point to exciting new directions for Malthouse.