Picture sheets of rusted-on corrugated iron, ripped through above eye level to create a horizon line and give us a glimpse of endless country sky. Picture a strong, lovely teenage girl, all dusty boots and low ponytail, and give her a tiara.
This is The Deb, a new Australian musical.
Taylah (Katelin Koprivec, charmingly grounded) lives in Dunburn, a tiny fictional rural town suffocated by drought. While the mayor (Jay Laga’aia) films “singing cowboy” videos to win relief funding before the dam runs dry, the teens are all focused on the local debutante ball, that white-dress-and-Viennese-waltz-schmaltz-fest.
No one is more excited for the deb than Taylah. An outcast, she’s painfully excited for a night that could transform her into a princess. No one can stop her from enjoying this fantasy. Except, maybe, for Maeve.
Taylah’s cousin from the city, Maeve (newcomer Charlotte MacInnes, instantly a star), is queer, poised and beautiful, burning with feminist rage. Sent to Dunburn after a political protest gone awry at her elite private school, she takes her suffering out on Taylah, the town and especially the deb, which she immediately condemns as outdated and unnecessary.
But of course Maeve is soon 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 a musical’s romantic A-story, brimming with sweetly funny beats and the solemn exchange of friendship bracelets.
With a pastiche score by Megan Washington that dabbles in Broadway pop, adding R&B inflections for worldly Maeve, Oz-rock riffs for town life and even transcendent 80s synth for a Bonnie Tyler-esque makeover number (local salon owner Janette, played by Monique Sallé, briefly steals the show), the musical moves winningly from punchline to punchline on the length of a heartstring, expertly tugging it in the name of friendship, becoming and community solidarity.
The writer and co-director, Hannah Reilly, uses conventional musical theatre narrative beats to structure her offbeat story and provide a sincere foundation for her joke-a-minute writing, which allows the emotional moments to really soar. There are fondly exaggerated country stereotypes, and surprisingly sharp observations about small town life, all wrapped up in a bow of self-acceptance.
The good old musical comedy B-story standby – a love affair between two secondary characters – is alive and well here, too, in the touchingly sincere romance growing between Mayor Jase and Tara Morice’s Shell, whose dress shop and dance lessons keep the deb tradition alive.
The story, score and tone owe a debt to Muriel’s Wedding – both the 1994 film and the 2017 musical with music by another darling of Australian indie pop, Kate Miller-Heidke (there’s even a trio of “can’t hang” mean girls). But it feels right that Muriel and Rhonda finally have two scrappy younger sisters; they carry their legacy proudly and loudly. Even head mean girl Annabelle (Mariah Gonzalez) finds some of that pride in defying social norms by the end of the show.
Emma White’s set is an instant summoner of place and Mason Browne’s costumes build out the world with equal doses of care and wit. Sally Dashwood’s choreography borrows from country “physie” culture and embraces the awkwardness of teens borrowing moves from music videos that don’t quite sit in their bodies, a twinge of self-aware irony in movement that feels uniquely Australian – an approach featured in recent musicals Fangirls and The Boomkak Panto.
The first act, unwieldy in Reilly and associate director Fraser Corfield’s hands, is a little too long and starts a little too self-consciously. A revisit of the opening and second numbers for streamlined introductions to the world, its people and their wants would help. The story sparkles when the cousins meet each other, and moves better once their journeys collide in song. In the Spotlight, which they sing together but apart, and Someone Brilliant, their love song for themselves and each other, are the jewels of the show, and could have arrived sooner.
It’s a rare thing when a musical’s second act is stronger than its first, but The Deb’s latter half is exceptional: it knows exactly how to bring itself home, adding softer tones, more emotional weight and then a truly ridiculous political visual gag to clear any misty eyes.
There’s something wonderful about a new theatre – The Rebel, Australian Theatre for Young People’s new home named for its million-dollar benefactor, Rebel Wilson – opening its doors with a show that is an embrace and expansion of new trends in Australian musical comedy. The Deb is a celebration of a new joyful onstage movement of women-centred, lovingly local stories with big laughs and big pop choruses. It anchors a story of young people in a story of community, and creates in the Rebel a new home for storytelling futures.