Saturday 30th July 2022, 7:30pm, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The audience love for Yve Blake’s musical comedy thriller FANGIRLS stays strong as the celebration of the power of female emotion, energy and enthusiasm remains important as society continues to need to shift views on the joyous devotion women of all ages display for strangers they see on stage and screen. Following on from the 2019 world premiere at Belvoir St Theatre, this production has toured, returning to Sydney at the Seymour Center in 2021, and now returning for a third season, this time in Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre.
For the 2022 Sydney Opera House season, a new cast have stepped into the work to ensure they retain a believability that they could be young teenagers while Paige Rattray’s direction remains relatively consistent with minor variations required shift the work from Belvoir’s corner stage to the Drama Theatre’s letterbox style traditional stage. The new cast is even more diverse than the original cast, ensuring that a broader range of audiences can relate to the characters as performers come from diverse backgrounds and present a range of physical traits. David Fleischer’s stage design remains consistent, but costuming has been tweeked, accommodating the new expanded cast with notable inclusion of the matching ‘twins’ presented by swings Tom Kantor and Hanna McInerney.
Manali Datar takes over the role of protagonist Edna, a character that Yve Blake originated at Belvoir St Theatre. Blake had analyzed the speech patterns of Australian teen girls with the unusual emphasis playing a large part of character definition. While dating physically expresses the fantasies that play out in the teen mind with wonderful conviction, the language patterns don’t come as naturally as they do for other performers. Tonieka Del Rosario slips onto the role of Edna’s best friend, the meek Brianna, with a delightful ‘niceness’ as the misfit that everyone wants to be friends. The trio of misfit friends is rounded out by Milo Hartill as Jules, the child who comes from money who bullies her way through life. Hartill delivers the strongest performance of the core Fangirls as she exhibits an innate understanding of the character and the nuances of the behaviors of teen girls. She balances the humor of the role, as the work makes fun of the juvenile behaviors, while still ensuring there is a truth and realism underlying every expression.
As Edna’s online friend “SaltyPringl”, Jesse Dutlow is brilliant. Dutlow ensures that through SaltyPringl, the audience sees that the ‘Fangirl’ experience isn’t just limited to girls. They also infuse the role with a compassion to reinforce that the youth of today have found supportive communities online and that their friendship circles now extend beyond the people they meet at school. SaltyPringl is both confident but also an outsider in terms of the ‘traditional’ ideals of what children should be, even with an increasingly progressive society and Dutlow ensures that this is clear, particularly through the reminders in his accent that SaltyPringl is living in the much more conservative Utah.
Danielle Barnes portrays the only adult at work, Edna’s mother Caroline. While Caroline is an exhausted single mother, Barnes keeps her as harsher and more harangued than trying to find ways to connect or exhibit any significant emotion so when Caroline eventually tries to connect with Edna it doesn’t feel genuine and lacks the emotional pull that the role is capable of.
For this season, Blake Appelqvist fills fangirls idol, Harry’s shoes perfectly. In addition to their striking physical appearance that towers above the fangirls, Appelqvist exudes that enigma that the teen pop stars seem to have. They ensure that Harry exhibits the flirtatious behaviors that have teen fans believing that their idols are declaring their love for them and them alone even though its all an act, selling the emotion of the songs and their ‘brand’ perfectly. Their reactions when Edna’s plans fall into place are perfectly balanced to ensure that the absurdity of the events are clear while giving Harry a naturalness and believability amongst the insanity.
While the transition to a more traditional stage than Belvoir’s corner stage made for a more enjoyable staging the sound design was flawed. There seems to be an ongoing problem with sound balances for musicals, particularly those occupying the Drama Theater space. At multiple occasions the performers microphones were not raised sufficiently or early enough. On other occasions the band sound levels were pushed over the vocals, drowning the singers who are already challenged with using broad Australian accents in vocals and beat poetry. While the Australian accent anchors the work in its origins as an Australian story and ensures that authenticity is maintained, it does not lend itself well to fast paced lyrics so any further obstructions need to be managed if the audience is to fully appreciate the brilliance of Yve Blake’s work.
Overall, FANGIRLS remains a feel good fun night of theater where the phenomenon of fangirls is both made fun of and lifted up as a question of why should be telling young girls their behavior is weird and wrong when boys do the same, if not more for their sports idols. While FANGIRLS will appeal more to those that can relate, either from personal experience of idolizing a celebrity they’ll never really meet and have a truly personal connection, or knowing someone, whether it be a friend, sibling or even a child that has gone through, or is going through that degree of devotion, it serves as a reminder that we, as society, should reconsider how we talk about this expression of emotion.