REVIEW: Miss Westralia || Blonde Moment Theatre and The Blue Room Theatre
Blonde Moment Theatre and The Blue Room Theatre
24 May 2019
Western Australia has the fortunate distinction of being the home of the first winner of the Miss Australia Quest, Miss Beryl Mills, and now we’ve also got a new home-grown musical about her rise to international pageant fame. Blonde Moment Theatre’s Miss Westralia returns to the Perth stage at The Blue Room Theatre after its first run at FRINGE WORLD in 2018, and has met with sell-out audiences in its first week. It’s a fresh, good-natured, and contemporary look at this forgotten moment in Australian history.
We meet Beryl (Helena Cielak) after first spending some time with her fellow contestants, two sophisticates (Grace Johnson and Rachael Chamberlain) from the Eastern states whose haughtiness stands in stark contrast to our down-to-earth ingenue. They do their best to make Miss Mills feel inferior, but the joke’s on them when she snatches the crown for herself. We then follow Miss Mills back home to Geraldton, to the farm where her mother toils away at sweeping the dust and other fascinating chores. There is some gentle mother-daughter conflict, but in the end, Kitty Mills (Rachael Chamberlain) agrees to accompany her daughter on her promotional trip to America, one of the prizes awarded to Mills for taking the title.
We also meet Frank Packer (Thomas Dimmick), the man behind the newspaper that’s sponsoring the pageant and footing the bill for the trip; he will be Mills’s chaperone and manager on the tour through America. We accompany the trio on the long, rocky boat ride over, and when we’re at last on American shores, we meet Mills’s nemesis, Norma Smallwood (Grace Johnson), a Miss America pageant winner who becomes pathologically jealous of Mills and tries to sabotage her rising popularity. Our Beryl’s opinion of America is soured, and she longs to return home to a simpler life, but first she must agree to Packer’s terms which stipulate that she make a speech extolling the virtues of the US, rather than publicly sharing her true thoughts.
Not having seen the first iteration of Miss Westralia, I’m unsure how this remounted production differs, or improves upon the original. What we have been presented with now is a well-built production that shows a lot of promise and gumption, much like its eponymous character. The scene is set with warm lighting designed by Mai Han and a corrugated tin and timber stage designed by Kelly Fregon. Off to stage left is a pile of wooden crates in front of a black curtain that conceals a “backstage” area, not to hide the excellent MD (Christopher Milbourne), but for the performers to change costumes and grab props. The corrugated tin backdrop breaks up into three doors, giving actors multiple entrances and creating interesting visual tableaux.
The music, written by Jake Nielsen, is complex, well-composed, and abundant; there’s a new song every few minutes, likely making for a mammoth score, as well as a huge task for the performers to learn (not to mention perform). Luckily the cast is up to it. I question whether this much of the plot and character development needed to be delivered musically; early in the second half, the constant breaking into song grew tiresome. This is a full-length musical with interval (a rarity for The Blue Room stage), but the storytelling pace slows from about three-quarters of the way through the first half. Some careful editing to create a strong push to the interval would benefit the show’s momentum greatly.
Each member of the ensemble gets ample opportunity to show off their skills, with Chamberlain as a stand-out comedian and ‘cool mum’, and Johnson as a feisty foil to the principled young heroine. Madeline Clouston‘s book takes a modern approach and superimposes a feminist message over this 20th Century tale. As cliched as this sounds, the show has something for all ages, but do take note that if you bring your grandmother or your pre-teen they might hear some naughty language and spicy innuendo that no good pageant girl would dare utter in polite company. Nevertheless, you’ll find some clever laughs and good messages in Miss Westralia that make this show a winner.
Miss Westralia runs at The Blue Room Theatre from 21 May to 8 June. For tickets and show information, go here: https://blueroom.org.au/events/miss-westralia/