Be not afraid of greatness – and don’t be too surprised to find it in the form of a new Australian musical. From the very first song, you'll be caught in the dreamy spell of this enchanting, box-fresh, pop-infused adaptation of the Bard’s mystical comedy.
“Love, and pop, and Shakespeare” – The Lovers pitches this as an irresistible combo. Give it two hours of your life, shimmy off any lingering cynicism, and you’ll be in wholehearted agreement, belting out these words in your best attempt at pop bravado (with a Shakespeareian flourish, of course) for days to come.
A bit of backstory: Helena loves Demetrius, desperately. But Demetrius has his heart set on Helena’s friend, Hermia, and Hermia’s dad would love to see her shacked up with Demetrius. But meanwhile, Hermia just wants to be with her boyfriend, Lysander, whom dad definitely doesn’t approve of. Ah, is there any drama more steamy than a hot slice of love rhombus (a more complicated love triangle)? Throw in a pair of meddlesome fairies and a flower that secretes a magical love juice, and things are about to get a whole lot knottier.
Directed by Shaun Rennie (Rent at the Sydney Opera House) and based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most loved and widely performed works, The Lovers is the first fully fledged original musical from Bell Shakespeare. This show is momentous in more ways than one, and much of this is thanks to the creative brilliance of its creator and composer Laura Murphy (whose theatre writing credits include The Dismissal and Qween Lear). Though she be but little, she is fierce. Doing away with the various narrative threads of Shakespeare’s original and zoning in on the young lovers, Murphy has a knack for decoding Shakepeare’s language and universal lessons, marrying snatches of the original 1595 (or 1596) script with a score of new songs.
Oh, the songs. Blending pop riffs with theatrical showmanship, Murphy’s score is a list of bonafide bangers that furthers the action and keeps the internal strife of these love-tortured teens in the spotlight. In the hands of the capable cast, a new wave of bonafide triple threats, the music soars.
Everyone on stage is a joy to witness, but Natalie Abbott as lovesick Helena is the standout star. Her goosebump-inducing voice and expert comedic acting send her above and beyond, especially in the Act One showstopper ‘Chasing My Tail’. It is no wonder that she made her professional debut in the national touring production of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical.
Abbott is joined by Blake Appleqvist as Demetrius, who channels much of the crush-magnet energy they brought to Belvoir’s Fangirls and the Hayes’ Bonnie & Clyde; Brittanie Shipway (credits include the Australian tours of Chess and The Sapphires), who knocks it out of the park with Act One closer ‘To Die For’; and Jerrod Smith as boyfriend goals, Lysander.
Vocal powerhouse (and The Voice finalist) Stellar Perry is an absolute find, making an impressive musical theatre debut as a gender-bent Oberon, king of the fairies. As Oberon’s right-hand man, the mischievous sprite Puck, Monique Sallé (ATYP’s The Deb, the 25th anniversary tour of Rent) channels boundless energy and rap-style narration. Like all of Shakespeare’s best jesters and fools, Sallé’s Puck provides witty fourth-wall-breaking commentary, giving us a nod to a well-known subplot from the Midsummer Night’s source – the one with the amateur thespians and the man with a donkey’s head.
Watched over by a lipstick-stained statue of Shakespeare, the set design from Marg Horwell straddles minimalism and maximalism, laying the perfect scene. Horwell is also on costume design, with modern street fashion playfully meshing with Elizabethan attire. As the magical meddling grows more chaotic, the costumes evolve. Subtle messaging can be found in clothing items, such as a t-shirt emblazoned with the Hamlet line “Get thee to a nunnery”, seemingly reclaiming it as a tongue-in-cheek feminist slogan.
Award-winning musical director Andrew Worboys joins the slew of creatives making their Bell Shakespeare debuts in this production, commands an on-stage rock band from behind the keys (where they are not safe from the teddy bear-throwing spats of the young lovers).
There is a line from Puck that sums up the ethos of The Lovers: "Sometimes the love stories we rely on, could use a little adaptation." Murphy remixes the romantic stories that fill us with aspiration and hope in the era of eggplant emojis and selfies. While the story takes a slightly jarring sharp turn into a progressive message of self-love, it grants teenagers (and all of us, really) the permission to be messy and hopeful in figuring it all out and learning how to fully love themselves in the pursuit of loving another person.
The Lovers is very much of the now, with musicals infused with pop and historical, old English charm taking over the word – Six is currently continuing its world domination with a tour of Australia and New Zealand, and West End and Broadway hit & Juliet is also heading Down Under soon. With the extra oomph of its catchy score, empowering message and an unexpected queer romantic subplot (that brought a tear to this weary reviewer’s eye), The Lovers is every bit deserving of being the next musical to tour the globe. Murphy proves that a love potion isn’t required to sell the Bard to the Taylor Swift generation.
Admittedly, I have been crushing on this show since its first announcement. But is there anything sweeter than a crush living up to the dream you have built of them? Gentles, do not reprehend. All we need now is a cast recording of this show to play on repeat, please?
The Lovers plays a limited season at the Sydney Opera House until November 20, 2022. Get your tickets here.