For a vibrant art form, generally full of life, there are a great many ghosts to be found haunting the latest musical to open in Sydney. First and foremost there’s the shade of Lea Sonia, drag queen extraordinaire and our host for the evening, pushed under a tram by a homophobic serviceman, eight years before trams disappeared from Sydney’s streets. But then there are the generations of gay men and women who have come before us, drawn to the NSW capital and the ‘safe’ haven of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross by the promise of opportunity, permissiveness or just plain anonymity. And then there is Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows itself – an Australian musical written at the height of the HIV crisis, and a would-be spirit of a bygone era, if only it didn’t seem so relevant in the light of the new alt-right intolerance.

L-R Ben Hall, Matthew Backer, Hayden Tee, Blazey Best and Tim Draxl in Only Heaven Knows © Robert Catto

Back in 1988, Harding’s decision not to write an ‘AIDS musical’ but instead to look back in anger at the previous generation of gay men might have seemed perverse, but nowadays the parallels are intriguing. The first Act is set in 1944 in a Sydney where the chaos of a world at war flooded the streets with soldiers and sailors. For gay men like Cliff and Alan – two former servicemen thrown out of the army after doing two years in prison for an act of gross indecency (ie. caught mid head-job) – there was an optimism and a feeling of change in the air, not unlike, say, the ‘sing if you’re glad to be gay’ 1970s or even the 2000s when gay couples in more enlightened parts of the world started to achieve marriage equality.

Into Cliff and Alan’s world comes Tim (played in the 1995 revival by a young David Campbell), a 17-year-old, bright as a button orphan, booted out of his Melbourne home by an intolerant uncle. His friendships with camper-than-camp Lana and crazy landlady Guinea – who still believes her spectral dog Bertie lives in the house – and his burgeoning relationship with the older Cliff make up the hopeful, high energy first half. But then comes the Menzies backlash. Twelve years on, and gay men are being arrested for loitering in parks – presumably, like Queen Victoria, Menzies didn’t believe in lesbians – and many, like Alan, sought ‘cures’ in hideous treatments like electro-aversion therapy. The second half is much, much darker, and it’s a timely warning about how easy it is to slip back when politicians stoke the fires of fear of the unknown ‘stranger’.

Those seeking a modern, post-Sondheim musical with sharp lyrics and a sophisticated score might be disappointed. Only Heaven Knows has only 40 minutes of music in a show that runs nearly three hours with interval. It’s a play with music, really, its roots in the drag scene and burlesque more than in the musical theatre. The book is sharp, if a little conventional, but in the right hands, as here, the dialogue crackles. A few updated references to Grindr and ‘Keep Sydney Open’ in Lea’s introduction help contextualise matters. The songs are sweet, if sentimental, and the lyrics are basic, but Harding has placed them well, and a torch song can land not for what it says but for how it says it – pace Stealin’ Lea’s blistering indictment of society (and Alan’s) embrace of ‘anti-gay therapy’.

Tim Draxl and Ben Hall in Only Heaven Knows © Robert Catto

Director Shaun Rennie makes clear, simple choices on Brian Thomson’s cleanly monolithic set. Aided by Emma Vine’s well-observed costumes, Neil McLean’s sensitive sound design and a neat LX design from Trent Suidgeest, the story is given all the room in the world to breathe, and the actors relish every moment. Transitions are handled with minimum effort, and the occasional bit of character doubling is barely an issue.

Fortunately for Rennie (and Harding) the cast is damn near perfect. New(ish)comer Ben Hall makes a winning Tim, capturing the character’s inherent preppy cuteness and evident sex appeal. He’s a nuanced actor with a natural voice that, though just a bit stretched, is never less than engaging. He manages the transition from inexperienced and enthusiastic lover to the more self-centred wannabe writer yearning for an escape to the heady London arts scene of the 1950s, without ever losing our sympathy. He’s well matched by Tim Draxl as Cliff, a refreshing blokey gay man, who loves with an attractive and openhearted honesty. Equally strong as cheeky lover or angry aging man, he captures Cliff’s buried insecurities in the face of Tim’s more intellectual ambitions. His warm baritone is easy on the ear, and he’s great at mining a lyric.

Blazey Best is a warm and funny Guinea – so named after a club manager reckoned she was worth more than a quid. She’s every gay man’s confidant, hiding her own sadness while she busies herself about other people’s problems, and she’s a fine comic actor to boot, landing her lines like a good ‘un. Matthew Backer, a hugely intelligent actor, is deeply touching as Alan, hiding his insecurities under a flamboyant veneer of garrulous campery. His shock therapy scene is impossible to watch without being moved and he displays an easy, attractive singing voice.

Last but not least is Hayden Tee, fresh out of uniform as the straighter-than-straight Inspector Javert in Les Misérables on Broadway. His Lea is a gorgeous creation, like many good drag queens, his stage persona an opportunity to project a strength that escapes him in civvies. With his high-end, affected Kiwi accent, his Lana flutters about like the southern hemisphere’s answer to Noël Coward, and the only regret is that he only has the one opportunity – the aforementioned Stealin’ – to flex those fabulous vocal cords.

To judge by the pre-show and post-show chatter, Only Heaven Knows holds a unique place in many people’s hearts, and a special place in Australian musical theatre history. But as Lea’s final reveal shows – and no spoiler here – the show has plenty still to say, not least as a timely reminder of what the LGBTIQ community has fought for, and what we still need to achieve.

Only Heaven Knows plays until July 1