Australia's Beatles-beating pop group The Seekers get their own jukebox musical. And it's not awesome.
It’s hard to begrudge anyone their enjoyment of this new bio-musical about local folk group The Seekers. Nostalgia and music are equally powerful forces, and a show that is designed solely to reunite an audience with songs and people they remember from their youth is going to put smiles on a lot of faces, no matter what.
That’s not inherently a bad thing and there are plenty of musicals across the world doing the same thing. Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) and Beautiful (all about Carole King) are currently the gold standard of these shows, managing to marry tight, generally successful dramatic narratives to the audience’s favourite hits.
But it is so hopelessly frustrating to attend the opening night of a new Australian musical, that rare beast, excited to see something we’ve made rather than another imported song-and-dance fest, and realise that its framework, structure, and script – the elements that can lift a nostalgia event from entertainment devoid of artistic value into a piece of theatre – are insipid and careless.
Narrated by Ron Edgeworth (Adam Murphy), Judith Durham’s eventual husband, the book follows a making-the-band narrative path: Judith (Pippa Grandison) sings in public for the first time and builds a name as a jazz artist; Athol Guy (Glaston Toft) meets her at their shared day job and books her to sing with his trio including himself, Bruce Woodley (Mike McLeish) and Keith Potger (Phillip Lowe); the newly-minted Seekers book a couple of months’ work in London; stars are made.
What’s incredible – in the worst way – is that the story’s inherent high stakes have been written over and brushed aside. The show even makes a joke of it – nothing dramatic or unpleasant, it says with an indulgent smile and shrug, ever happened to The Seekers.
Significant events, like a conversation with a cheating boyfriend, or a proposal, are never shown onstage, robbing the story of its own drama. Problems, like one band-member’s declared animosity for another or Judith’s mother requesting she come home, are resolved in mere seconds and perfunctorily. Judith’s history of poor self-esteem, eating disorders, and complicated recovery from a car accident, are glanced over with infantilising pep talks and self-deprecating jokes.
It even ends with a completely unprompted, untied to the script, performance of ‘I Am Australian’, for pure schmaltz and an easy grab for patriot tears. Director Gary Young hangs the plot limply around the songs and the show never really sustains a satisfying sense of momentum.
None of this is surprising, considering the source: the book was written by Patrick Edgeworth, who is Durham’s brother-in-law (no wonder the story becomes, in the end, all about his brother Ron), and the script consultant is Graham Simpson, who has worked with the Seekers for years and has written an authorised biography of Durham.
This musical is a needless exercise in spin, putting flashy costumes and dance numbers in front of real emotion, as if we may not notice that the Seekers have ever felt pain, hardship, or something unpleasant. This musical, in its core, begs you not to look too closely at what makes The Seekers human.
Georgy Girl’s saving grace – and the reason most people will attend – is the music. Grandison is so warmly likeable as Durham. Her voice is not a replica of Durham’s distinctive tone but it’s gorgeous, malleable and full. When it blends with Toft, McLeish, and Lowe, her Seekers, there’s a palpable sense of magic in the air. The four actors are beautifully suited to sing together, their harmonies pure and far more fluid than anything produced by either the ensemble or the backing orchestra.
If only the musical could slough off its book and follow the music of the Seekers to create something smaller and more emotional – tap into the love, sorrow, and innocence of those beloved Australians who just fell into fame. There’s a lovely little story in there about the bruises small hearts bear when exposed to a harsh world, but we’ll never hear it. It’s not what the band, or the writers, want to present the world. They’re still protecting their scars.
We’re given instead this Georgy Girl, a shallow, messy piece that will get a few chuckles and showcase some good songs, and then will never be thought of again. But god, it could have been a sweet, satisfying little jukebox musical.