The Hayes Theatre, Sydney
October 16, 2018

“This will all be nostalgia one day,” Evie May’s assistant Cole tells her backstage at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre after the final performance before the venue’s closure in 1966, drawing a chuckle from the opening night audience at the Hayes Theatre. But while this new musical by Naomi Livingston (music and lyrics) and Hugo Chiarella (book and lyrics) looks back at Australia’s Tivoli Circuit – the popular variety entertainment circuit ultimately crushed by the advent of television – it does so with a critical eye.

The world premiere of any new Australian musical is an exciting event, and one fraught with high expectations, but while there is still room for Evie May (which was developed through the New Musicals Australia program) to be further finessed, some great performances, a moving narrative and a distinctive score (mingling period pastiche and contemporary numbers) reveal a show with a lot of potential.

Evie MayAmanda Harrison in Hayes Theatre Co’s Evie May. Photo © Nik Damianakis

In this production by director (and choreographer) Kate Champion, the story of fictional Tivoli star Evie May’s career is framed by a backstage conversation between Evie (Amanda Harrison), at the end of her career in the theatre and the young Cole (Keegan Joyce), and it unfolds in a series of flashbacks that take her back to her youth in Perth, her journey to Sydney and her rise through the Tivoli ranks.

The flashbacks are presented as a series of often painful memories coaxed reluctantly out of Evie by Cole, who’s staring down the barrel of a return to Vietnam and who has his own secret to reveal. This format creates an interesting layering effect, as Evie’s past is gradually revealed, but the non-linear structure means the dialogue does quite a bit of heavy lifting to orient the audience and fill in gaps. Champion’s clear direction does much to guide the audience, as does Anna Gardiner’s simple, versatile ‘behind-the-scenes’ set with its red neon TIVOLI, effectively lit by Sian James-Holland.

Strong performances command the audience’s attention, and go a long way to overcoming the issues of structuring and over-reliance on dialogue – and if the first act feels a little overlong, it’s by no means boring. Harrison puts in a particularly fine performance as Evie, the escalating emotion of her opening number Here I Am, voice dark and powerful, gives the show a strong start and binds the work together reprised in the finale. Keegan Joyce’s emotionally hungry Cole balances Harrison’s withdrawn Evie nicely, and his One Last Chance is delivered with clear-toned sincerity.

Evie MayBishanyia Vincent and Loren Hunter in Hayes Theatre Co’s Evie May. Photo © Nik Damianakis

Loren Hunter plays the younger Evelyn May Murphy, giving us an effective evolution from a vivacious but vulnerable Perth teenager besotted with a sleazy travelling vaudeville comedian to a star in her own right. Hunter’s wistful The View has a dreamy, shimmering quality, while her barnstorming Bindy do the Lindy is a blast. Some of the most affecting moments in the show are her duets with Harrison, in a musical interweaving of present and past.

Bishanyia Vincent is June, both a mentor-figure and romantic partner to Evie, the oppressive social strictures of their environment necessitating their relationship remains secret. The constant tension between private life “behind the curtain” and public performance (onstage and otherwise) is highlighted grippingly in June’s Life of a Woman: backstage an anthem to sisterhood and support, a raunchy appeal to “take care of your man” once she’s on the Tivoli stage. Vincent also doubles as Evelyn’s straight-laced school friend and her conservative sister.

Jo Turner puts in a fine turn as the charming and predatory Barlow – his duo with Bob (Tim Draxl) ­sets the vaudeville tone early on – as well as the Tivoli’s slimy producer. Draxl returns as Heaney, a drifting farmer’s son Evelyn meets on the road to Perth.

Evie May, Tim Draxl and Jo Turner in Hayes Theatre Co’s Evie May. Photo © Nik Damianakis

Evie May is quietly moving throughout, but it somehow misses the opportunities to really hit the audience in the gut – especially given the powerful tragedy of the central love story. Similarly, the twist at the end of Act I is a little too heavily foreshadowed to come as much of a surprise, though its ramifications lead to some particularly nuanced, heartbreaking acting from Harrison. But the music is very effective, Steven Kreamer (who also did the orchestrations and arrangements) leading a band in fine form. Highlights include the music-box accompaniment to And it Turns (as television swallows the variety shows) and the brassy accompaniment to numbers like Bindy do the Lindy and Life of a Woman.

All in all, there is a lot to love in this musical, which shines a light on the stories often obscured in Australia’s history. While there may still be some work to do, there are plenty of moments that will linger with you long after the lights are turned off at the Tivoli for the last time.

Evie May is at the Hayes Theatre until November 10