I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at www.emmajaneexplores.com for more.
Melba - the woman behind the superstar
Original Australian musicals don't see the light of day enough, so it's an exciting prospect that the Hayes Theatre Co and New Musicals Australia are sharing this musical adaptation of Ann Blainey's book "Marvellous Melba" based on the life of Australian icon Dame Nellie Melba.
Combining traditional opera with musical theatre, Melba certainly has legs as a musical. The subject lends itself wholeheartedly to this medium, with Johannes Luebbers' score and Nicholas Christo's book and lyrics telling the story of Nellie's success against all odds.
The show itself could use tightening as it does run too long. The first act runs for around an hour and twenty minutes and whilst the storyline is engaging, it could definitely be dealt with more efficiently. However despite its length, the lesser known story of Melba's humble beginnings and her struggle to keep her son safe and by her side as her star rose is enough to keep the audience captivated for the duration of the show.
The piece commences with Emma Matthews as the established star Nellie Melba singing to her public and then she disappears to have Annie Aitken take over the story as the young Nellie Armstrong. Matthews' Melba appears throughout the production at various points when the drama peaks, performing sections of Melba's most famous Aria performances. The storyline begins with young Nellie who has travelled with her young son to Paris to audition for a singing school. Her pluck gets the in the door to audition and from there, her star begins to rise. Whilst Nellie grows in fame and demand, her private struggles with her family life come to the fore and the production delves into the messy estrangement with her Australian husband and the battle to keep her son by her side.
Wayne Harrison's directing is smart and effective for the most part, cleverly utilising the small playing space and playing with puppetry and silhouette. The handling of the two Melbas when they are onstage at once is challenging, and perhaps is the one area I'd suggest could be improved upon as at times the transition from Annie Aitken as the young Melba to Emma Matthews as Melba the star and back is a little clunky and takes away from the drama unfolding. The production design by Mark Thompson is simple, but lovely, with a tilted white circle forming the stage on which the action takes place whilst the border of the playing space is draped in red roses. Trudy Dalgleish's lighting rig contains an incredible amount of lights, but I'd suggest that for a piece like Melba simplicity works best. That said, there is some wonderful work done by Dalgleish using silhouettes and gobos that really help compliment the piece.
Emma Matthews, one of Australia's most well-known opera singers, doesn't disappoint vocally as the established Melba. Truly some of the most incredible moments of the show are Matthews' display of flawless vocal technique, and the beautiful tone of her lyric soprano is quite remarkable in this intimate setting.
The use of Matthews is not so much a problem with her performance, but with the piece overall. The use of the two Melbas and having Matthews take over from Aitken to break into performance in the midst of the story derails a lot of the drama and caused me to disconnect with the actual plot. I'd question the merits of actually having two Melbas in the piece overall, however it was certainly a pleasure listening to Matthews perform. When Aitken and Matthews sing together at the closure of the production, it's a really lovely moment and one worth waiting for.
Annie Aitken as the young Nellie Melba is superb. She presents an empathetic, caring and uncertain Nellie whose spunk and courage is admirable. Aitken does the show's heavy lifting dramatically and handles it with aplomb. Her vocals are clear, on point and connected and her performance is a lot of the reason that this show succeeds.
The ensemble cast is strong in this innovative new work. Genevieve Lemon nearly steals the show in her turn as Melba's singing teacher in Paris. Caitlin Berry is fantastic as all of her characters, but particularly shines as Melba's friend and confidante Gladys de Gray. Andrew Cutcliffe manages to show off his beautiful, rich voice whilst maintaining the menace required to pull off Melba's estranged husband. Adam Rennie is charming, but underused as Melba's lover. Michael Gray, however, struggles to make an impact as Nellie's supportive but long-suffering father.
Samuel Skuthorp does a good job of operating a puppet meant to be Nellie's son, George, however Skuthorp is dressed in the same clothes as the puppet and at times the actors in scenes interact with each other, ignoring the puppet, so the clever puppetry concept doesn't quite deliver the maximum impact.
All in all, Melba is a solid show with some really lovely moments. It's a fantastic insight into the woman behind the superstar and for someone like me, who didn't know much about Melba's life, it was definitely eye-opening and I have a new level of respect for how hard she fought to carve out a career for herself. A huge congrats must go to the Hayes Theatre Co for their work supporting and producing new Australian works.