Despite its considerable technical merits and stellar performance highlights, “Eureka” seems unlikely to enter the annals of Australian musical theater as a great discovery. A lavishly mounted world premiere, directed with customary polish by Gale Edwards (who helmed the original local version of “The Boy From Oz”), this blandly generic epic uses a celebrated 1854 goldminers’ uprising in the regional boom town of Ballarat as the picturesque canvas for a sweeping, semi-sung-through musical melodrama. But all that really sweeps here are the hems of the period dresses and the fast-change settings that serve a thinly stretched, character-heavy plot.
The show’s admittedly spectacular staging, its well-chosen cast and the commemorative value of 2004 as the 150th anniversary of the “nation-building” Eureka Stockade rebellion may initially draw sizable auds Down Under. But those crowds probably will emerge remarking more on the strikingly slanted scenic designs than the forgettable score.
Episodic storyline revolves around tensions between salt-of-the-earth immigrant miners, led by idealistic Irishman Peter Lalor (Ian Stenlake) and his eager-beaver sidekick Sean Flynn (Simon Gleeson); and the corrupt British authorities, repped by driven Commissioner Grey (Michael Cormick) and coldly rigid Governor Sir Charles Hotham (Peter Carroll).
Other principal protags include some predictably spunky women: Lalor’s father-dominated lady-love Alicia (Rachael Beck); Bridie (Trisha Crowe), a fiery colleen who sparks with Sean; and noisily flamboyant saloon hostess Mercedes (Amanda Muggleton). Latter is clearly modeled on legendary Gold Rush attraction Lola Montez, the subject of another 1950s local musical.
Added to this already clotted mix are a dipso grandpa (Barry Crocker), an Italian poet (Christopher Tomkinson), a Confucius-quoting Chinaman (Yang Li) and a hot-headed Prussian (James Millar), not to mention the Governor’s terminally sozzled, Lady Bracknellian consort (Nancye Hayes).
The result is an overpopulated fresco of stock types and under-developed situations, unfolding a series of sometimes fetching tableaux that are big on flashy effect, but scant on sociopolitical or even psychological causes. Instead, an earnest veneer of catch-all multiculturalism pervades the piece, right down to bookending each of its two acts with silver-haired, indigenous Australian Kardinia (Pauline Whyman), a one-woman native chorus. She underscores the proceedings with ominous pronouncements about “the land” and “white strangers,” and then plays as the main plot’s black domestic.
Complementing the formulaic scenario are songs that strenuously endeavor to whip up the so-called action into moments of stuck-on sentiment and/or instant uplift: They’re rousing for a few stirring seconds, without really resonating. Musically it’s goldfields away from the lustily vivid realm of, say, Lerner and Loewe’s similarly themed “Paint Your Wagon”; here, each “new” number seems to be the same synthetically confected, bombastic song that came before.
Choreographic color is, likewise, monotonal.
By way of refreshing contrast, the show’s staging effects are boldly arresting, employing a well-utilized revolve as well as a towering, angled wooden shaft motif, physically embodying, with compelling clarity, the central theme of staking a claim. These sturdy physical aspects are further enhanced by an atmospherically inventive lighting design that comes into its own during the action-packed second act, where the unfurling of the specially stitched Southern Cross flag is a highlight.
The talent gathered to flesh out this less-than-impressive piece is, for the most part, in splendidly good shape. Male leads Stenlake, Gleeson and especially Cormick as the bitter and twisted villain, give rousingly committed perfs, while Beck sings beautifully and Crowe projects engaging charm. Also commendable are Carroll (spookily commanding in his big outburst scene), Hayes (who does wonders with a vaudevillian chestnut concerning Marco Polo) and Crocker (endearing and fine-voiced until he vanishes, far too soon).
The stellar cast’s manifest professionalism, demonstrated throughout, serves only to show up what is not showbiz gold, but fool’s gold.