Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
June 2, 2018

60 years ago a new Australian musical had its first professional production at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown. Lola Montez was a minor hit and one of the show’s excellent songs, Saturday Girl, became top of the hit parade. The book was written by Alan Burke, the lyrics by Peter Benjamin and the marvellous music by Peter Stannard. They produced a chain of songs with easy grace and flowing melodies. The great weakness of the show was Alan Burke’s book. It was simply poor, with many absurdities which no number of re-rewrites seem to have resolved. Since its promising beginnings, the piece has languished, going through many rewrites, including the one for this effective semi-staged production at the Riverside Theatre. (The collaborators went on to write one other show, Pardon Miss Wescott, for Channel 7 in 1959.)

The Riverside cast was excellent. Red Symons as Henry Seekamp and Peter Cousens as Smith were both in fine form. As for Lola, the silly custom in 1958 of having imported stars for big shows was still in place and Mary Preston arrived from England to play Lola. She was dire, singing out of tune more often than not. Her vocal performance is preserved on the original cast recording, reissued some years ago on Bayview CD.

At Riverside, Debora Krizak made an effective Lola but was hampered by the faults in the script, as had been Mary Preston. The part was also poorly drawn. For example, Lola should be in the show from the start and regularly after that. This has never been the case, with this key player side-lined more often than not. In this edition and despite the best efforts of Krizak, Lola couldn’t keep up with the engaging juvenile leads: Ashleigh Rubenach as Jane Oliver and Joel Grainger as Daniel Brady. Joel Granger in particular gave a lovely performance with a smile that hit the back wall of the theatre. This young man should have a great future. His skills overcame the clumsy drawing of his character, such as his sudden infatuation with Lola after having fallen deeply in love with Jane in Act 1. This is unexplained. Daniel was also supposed to have met Jane in the Crimean war that had ended in 1856, by which time Lola Montez was in Ballarat. From what we can establish, there were some soldiers from Australia in the Crimean War but no nurses. So how did Daniel meet Jane? Worse, he suddenly falls for Lola in the interval. What? I could go on.

The late Peter Stannard wrote a new song for Lola earlier this year, and it is very fine indeed. As somebody who has loved the piece since I saw it first in 1968, my thanks to Diadem Productions for enabling us relive the memories of this memorable, if flawed musical.