Not just an original score but also an original and highly entertaining story, new Australian musical Fangirls explodes onto the Melbourne stage in a very welcome yet all too brief season.
Raucously funny, searingly insightful and gently affecting, Fangirls succeeds by deftly balancing sincerity and a mockingly self-aware tone, throwing in a sticky slice of black comedy for extra measure.
In place of homework, scholarship student Edna writes fan fiction about dreamy pop star Harry, interacting online with equally obsessed fangirls worldwide. Teen angst is shown as being inextricably linked to the manipulative nature of manufactured pop stardom, raising the question of how far a fangirl would actually take her obsession.
Performing the all too rare Meredith Willson triple crown of writing book, music and lyrics, creator Yve Blake has crafted an instantly engaging musical that pulls off the eternal impossibility of balancing education and entertainment. As well as delivering a catchy, accessible score peppered with witty lyrics, Blake’s key achievement is taking a relatively simple scenario and illustrating Just. How. Important. the stakes are to the young characters.
Director Paige Rattray runs with Blake’s frenzied characters and heightened scenario, scoring abundant laughs of recognition at the teen characters’ righteous self-absorption and raging insecurities. The darkly comic vibe is brought out in quirky, stylised performances, grounded by an undercurrent of truth thanks to Blake’s eye for authentic teen dilemmas.
Likewise, choreographer Leonard Mickelo adopts a delightfully idiosyncratic style. Utilising as much wit as a choreographer can be meaningfully said to adopt, Mickelo neatly balances boy band pastiche with the frenetic outpouring of teen spirit.
The combined wattage achieved by Rattray’s direction and Mickelo’s choreography takes hold of the audience and basically never lets go for the full 150-minute running time (including interval).
Given the budget constraints of touring, the use of recorded music is understandable, and music director Zara Stanton ensures seamless synchronisation of the live vocals. The streamlined design is kept to budget with terrific flair by designer David Fleischer, who complements the heightened reality with a keen eye for characterful details. Broadcast on five cutely varied screens, video content (co-designed and produced by Justin Harrison) is of a particularly high standard, amplifying the online world of fangirls with an incredible array of video feeds.
The show is about pop concerts whilst also frequently recreating the excitement of a pop concert, often evoking the same response from the audience that the characters themselves are feeling. This conceit reaches its zenith at the top of act two, when teen idol Harry leads his True Connection bandmates in a frenzied Melbourne concert. Yve craftily illustrates the manufactured source of the fandom’s adulation, with songs such as “Nobody” (as in, ‘Nobody loves you like me’), “Let Me In” and “Cool Girl.”
After establishing a relatively realistic world in act one, Blake makes the odd choice of veering into unnecessarily dramatic territory with an altogether implausible development. In a television series, this would likely be considered a “jumping the shark” moment. The twist is nonetheless mined for its full dramatic impact, and the ship is eventually steered back on course for a generally satisfying conclusion.
Further analysis reveals that the outcome of Edna freeing Harry is a subversion of her I Wish song “Just Wait;” the wish is realised in a way the Edna never imagined.
Further subversion and subtext reveal the cleverness of Blake’s writing and the depth of her knowledge of the form. The alpha character of Jules echoes that of Regina Charles in Mean Girls, yet rather than being a glossy blonde, Jules is a young woman of colour, insecure over her weight. Edna mother’s Caroline sings the sort of sincere parent 11 o’clock number heard from Footloose to Dear Evan Hansen, but this one is ingeniously twisted with the audience’s knowledge of how terribly Edna is not living up to her mother’s innocent faith.
At this performance, the role of Edna was played by Shannon Alyce Quan. Rocking the score with her authentic belt, Quan had an ideal blend of youthful vulnerability and simmering mania.
As Utah-based fanboy Saltypringl, James Majoos creates the best sassy-yet-self-conscious gay teen since Wilson Cruz portrayed Rickie in My So-Called Life. His performance sharpened with pinpoint accuracy and immaculate control, Majoos moves with the impossible elasticity of an animated character, his endearingly fey voice completing the picture.
Chika Ikogwe gives what is traditionally known as a powerhouse performance as Jules, commanding the audience’s attention with much the same power that Jules wields over her friends. A fearless comedienne and brassy vocalist, Ikogwe gives a memorable breakout performance.
The lone “mature age” cast member, Danielle Barnes’ wealth of stage experience sees her ensure that Caroline, weary mother of Edna, rings true in her compassion, avoiding any hint of syrupy sweetness. When the cast are required to blend together as hyper-keen teens, ageless trooper Barnes joins the ranks with flair.
In a rather incredible match of character and performer, The Voice star AYDAN plays Harry with striking realism and a wink of sultry cheekiness; even in danger, young Harry cannot help but tousle his famous silky hair. AYDAN brings his own arena experience to the concert scenes to great effect.
Shubshri Kandiah conveys the insecurities and torn affections of Brianna in an endearing manner. Ayesha Madon steals scenes with her intense online fangirl character of Lily, often seen on screen in mid-tearful rants of raging passion.
An ideal mother-daughter show, fangirls of any all ages will identify with Fangirls. A show that will have fans talking for years to come, the affordably priced season of Fangirls has every reason to sell out in Melbourne.
Fangirls plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 9 May 2021. For tickets, click here.
The world premiere cast recording of Fangirls was released 30 April 2021. To stream or download, click here.
Photos: Brett Boardman