Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s pre-The Boy From Oz musical Miracle City has enjoyed an almost mythological status on the Australian theatre scene. Premiered by Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, the show – which is set during the live-broadcast of a TV show by a Tennessee-based televangelist family – languished on the shelf until The Hayes Theatre’s 2014 production revived its fortunes. The musical now returns for a run at the Sydney Opera House, in a new production directed by Darren Yap (who also helmed the Hayes production).
Miracle City. Photograph © Branco Gaica
Gus Murray plays ex-con turned televangelist preacher Ricky Truswell, whose dream is to build the titular Miracle City, a Christian theme park – “first you pray and then you play” – and the action takes place during a pledge drive on their television show Ministry of Miracles. In the Opera House’s Studio, the audience is the live TV audience (signs for Applause and On Air hang above the stage) and the actors mill around, preparing for the broadcast, as people take their seats.
Ricky Truswell’s wife Lora Lee (Kellie Rode) and children Loretta (Jessica Vickers) and Ricky-Bob (Finn Bradley) give Ministry of Miracles its family friendly feel, while the show’s cast is filled out by the Citadel Singers – Eulella (Lara Mulcahy), Charlene (Josie Lane) and Bonnie Mae (Missy Higgins). But the wholesome, happy-family façade hides darker problems. Building the theme park has plunged the family into debt, and while potential salvation arrives in the form of the ageing yet powerful Reverend Millard Sizemore – Ricky’s mentor – it comes at a terrible price, with Sizemore asking something awful in return.
Against James Browne’s clever, yet economical revolving set design, we are treated to the contrast between the manicured on-stage presentation and the escalating tensions backstage.
Murray’s singing voice may not be the strongest among the cast – his opening ode to his wife is nonetheless touching – but he brings a pitch-perfect, upbeat preacher energy to the role of clean-shaven evangelist Ricky, carefully balancing optimism and shaking faith as he wrestles with his dilemma.
Gus Murray and Kellie Rode. Photograph © Branco Gaica
Jessica Vickers brings a brilliantly sweet-toned, bell-like voice to Loretta – and in pigtails, a polka-dot dress and knee-high white socks she deftly conveys the younger side of her 16 years. The ultra-conservative Reverend Sizemore is played with terrifying authority by Anthony Phelan. Draped in vestments that denote a more ancient power, his musical contribution to Ministry of Miracles is a Christian call-to-arms accompanied by organ.
But it’s Kelly Rode’s performance as Lora Lee that is the core of this production. In a white-and-pink check two-piece suit that screams 1950s conservatism, she preaches to the women in the audience to “find the God in your man”. The role she sees for herself – at least in the beginning (she sings Share the Load with rich vocal presence) – is one of unflinching support for her husband.
Finn Bradley played son Ricky-Bob with spot-on energy on opening night, in a role he shares with Louis Fontaine, while Liam Nunan is an earnest Billy, who has his eye on Loretta and one day filling Ricky’s shoes.
The Citadel Singers fill out the show’s music, and while the three singers bring effectively contrasting personalities to the ensemble, differences in vocal style make for a slightly mismatched sound. Missy Higgins, in her musical theatre debut (on stage, at least, she has previously sung in the film Bran Nue Dae), makes for a nervous, jumpy Bonnie Mae – a down-and-out mother whose child has been taken away, brought into the show’s fold after phoning in to find salvation. She brings gritty, heartfelt emotion to the musical’s hit song I’ll Hold On (concert performances of which, over the years, have helped keep Miracle City’s legend alive). The folky nuance and tremulous desperation Higgins brings to the song make it one of the climaxes of the evening.
Missy Higgins, Anthony Phelan and Jessica Vickers. Photograph © Branco Gaica
Yap quotes Enright in the programme note describing Miracle City as “a musical play” or an “anti musical.” The musical numbers reveal little of the characters’ personal thoughts or intentions but are part of the façade created for the studio audience – and therefore they tend to lack emotional potency, except through ironic contrast. Yet I’ll Hold On is a rare moment when artifice and truth mingle.
Enright’s book is clever and punchy, damningly juxtaposing the hypocrisy and irony of the public message against the private turmoil and compromise, but in the end it’s not faith and hope of salvation that is condemned, rather the exploitation of those desires, financial or otherwise.
This production is by no means perfect. It’s not the ideal venue for such an intimate show and staging it there is quite tricky. The way space on the thrust stage was used caused sight-line issues for audience members sitting perpendicular, obscuring some of the visual reveals and the wall-mounted TV screens, and the sound was slightly uneven on opening night – but there is still plenty to love in it.
The band, led by composer Lambert, kept the show bouncing along through the tambourine-laden score, and overall the message hits its mark. This is a fine Australian musical, and one that deserves a place in the regular rotation.
Miracle City is at the Sydney Opera House until October 28.