Picture sheets of rusty corrugated iron torn above eye level to create a skyline and give us a glimpse of the endless countryside sky. Imagine a strong and charming teenager, with dusty boots and a low ponytail, and give her a tiara.
Meet The Deb, a new Australian musical.
Taylah (down to earth charming Katelin Koprivec) lives in Dunburn, a fictional rural town suffocated by drought. As the mayor (Jay Laga’aia) films “singing cowboy” videos to earn relief funds before the dam runs dry, the teens are all focused on the local debutante ball, this dress-up party. white and Viennese waltz. .
No one is more excited for the deb than Taylah. Pariah, she is painfully excited for a night that could turn her into a princess. No one can stop her from enjoying this fantasy. Except, maybe, for Maeve.
Taylah’s cousin from town, Maeve (newcomer Charlotte MacInnes, instantly a star), is quirky, poised and beautiful, burning with feminist rage. Sent to Dunburn after a political protest gone awry at her elite private school, she lashes out at Taylah, the town, and especially the deb, whom she immediately condemns as outdated and unnecessary.
But of course Maeve is quickly roped into the deb, and of course these cousins, from two different worlds, learn to understand each other. Their journey to best friendship takes the place of the romantic story of a musical, brimming with sweetly funny beats and the solemn exchange of friendship bracelets.
With a pastiche score by Megan Washington that touches on Broadway pop, adding R&B inflections for worldly Maeve, Oz-rock riffs for city life, and even transcendent 80s synth for a Bonnie-style makeover number. Tyler (local salon owner Janette, played by Monique Sallé, briefly steals the show), the musical moves winningly from punchline to punchline the length of a heartstring, deftly pulling it in the name of friendship , future and community solidarity.
Writer and co-director Hannah Reilly uses conventional musical theater narrative beats to structure her offbeat story and provide a heartfelt foundation for her up-to-the-minute joke writing that allows the emotional moments to really soar. There are lovingly exaggerated country stereotypes and surprisingly pointed observations of small-town life, all wrapped in an arc of self-acceptance.
The good old musical B-story standbys – a love story between two secondary characters – is alive and well here too, in the touching and heartfelt romance that grows between Mayor Jase and Tara Morice’s Shell, whose clothing store and dance classes keep the deb tradition alive.
The story, score and tone owe much to Muriel’s marriage – both the 1994 film and the 2017 musical with the music of another Australian indie pop darling, Kate Miller-Heidke (he there’s even a trio of mean “can’t hang” girls. But it only seems fitting that Muriel and Rhonda finally have two rambling younger sisters; they carry their heritage proudly and loudly. Even mean-spirited Annabelle (Mariah Gonzalez) finds some of that pride in defying social norms by the end of the show.
Emma White’s ensemble is an instant summoner of place and Mason Browne’s costumes build the world with equal doses of care and wit. Sally Dashwood’s choreography borrows from “physician” country culture and embraces the awkwardness of teenagers borrowing moves from music videos that don’t quite sit in their bodies, a self-aware pinch of irony in movement that feels uniquely Australian – an approach featured in recent musicals Fangirls and The Boomkak Panto.
The first act, heavy in the hands of Reilly and associate director Fraser Corfield, is a little too long and starts a little too tentatively. A revisit of the opening and second issue for simplified introductions to the world, its people and their needs would help. The story sparkles when the cousins meet, and moves better once their travels collide in song. In the Spotlight, which they sing together but separately, and Someone Brilliant, their love song for themselves and each other, are the show’s gems, and could have come sooner.
It’s a rare thing when the second act of a musical is louder than the first, but The Deb’s second half is exceptional: it knows exactly how to drive home, adding softer, more of emotional weight, and then a truly ridiculous political visual gag to erase any misty eyes.
There’s something wonderful about a new theater – The Rebel, the new home of Australian theater for young people named after its million-dollar benefactor, Rebel Wilson – which opens its doors with a show that’s an embrace and an expansion of new trends in Australian musical comedy. The Deb is a celebration of a joyous new onstage movement of local women-centric stories, complete with big laughs and big pop choruses. It anchors a story of youth in a story of community and creates in the rebel a new home for the future of storytelling.