Political satire and musicals for children are odd bedfellows, but Oz tuner “Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom” makes a fair, if ultimately unsuccessful, stab at uniting the two. Neither adult nor kiddie auds will be unreservedly satisfied with this too-long stage version of the iconic Australian tale about gumnut babies of the bush. But Neil Armfield’s charming production does adequately capitalize on existing goodwill toward the characters plucked out of May Gibbs’ post-WWI storybooks.
With the assistance of Doug McLeod, satirist John Clarke adorns a bare-bones storyline with a multitude of ideas, political witticisms, childish puns and carefree silliness, propelling forward an idea that could have collapsed under the weight of its mostly lackluster songs. Vet director Armfield makes good use of a magnificent jungle gym-inspired set and invigorates the already whimsical drama by encouraging his energetic thesps to cavort around the stage.
Nevertheless, by evening’s end the strain shows, and the tuner fails to organize its divergent qualities into a coherent whole.
Simple book has the two not-quite sexless (a la Laurel & Hardy) overgrown male gumnut babies Snugglepot (Tim Richards) and Cuddlepie (Darren Gilshenan) eager to leave the Australian bush to see the city up close … “but not too close.” With the cautious warnings of mentor B.T. Lizard (Simon Burke) ringing in their ears, the deliberately and amusingly gormless pair begin their journey.
Lacking the thrust of Dorothy’s city-bound search for a wizard’s help, this Oz tuner repeatedly emphasizes the value of friends (song “Mates” has it that Down Under camaraderie is “more than an ordinary friendship”) in a manner that will appeal to kids.
Chief among the pair’s new friends is the adrift eucalypt flower Ragged Blossom (Ursula Yovich), who stirs romance and low-key division between the boys. The serpent in friendship’s Garden of Eden is Norma Desmond look-alike Mrs. Snake (Kris McQuade), who seeks the destruction of all eucalyptus trees and therefore any gumnut and blossom byproducts. Aided by her ugly Banksia Men, Mrs. Snake pursues the titular trio.
Pointedly, Ragged Blossom is played by winsome aboriginal thesp Yovich, her poignant solo “Top of the Tree” subtly outlining the trauma of indigenous displacement. Compassionate and touching, this is also the evening’s most unashamedly political moment.
For the rest, politics is mainly confined to frequent witty and often irrelevant asides. (Considering a committee to run the bush, Mrs. Snake quips: “Bush Administration? Ahh, it’d never work!”)
Reveling in its Australiana, the show would require substantial revamping to accommodate international auds. But even for the home crowd, this finely staged, vibrantly acted, panto-like tuner has insufficient substance to last the full duration. After an enjoyable first act, the intermission causes a loss of momentum, compounded by the second act’s almost superfluous opener, “The Call of the Sea.” The tuner never really recovers. Only the oft-repeated anthem “Are We There Yet?” — the one song destined for life outside the production — recharges the batteries, albeit temporarily.
Of the hard-working supporting cast, Ana Maria Belo particularly impresses with her turn as the smart, supportive bird Fantail.
Costumes by Tess Schofield, faithful to both Gibbs’ illustrations and Oz fauna, have a ramshackle, home-made feel that disguises their ingenuity, if not their charm.
Set by Stephen Curtis is a busy and functional collection of trapdoors and jungle gyms painted to look like tree bark. The design never fails to impress in its versatility, but also encourages the aura of playfulness intrinsic to pleasing the show’s junior audience.