Even if it weren’t as five-star fabulous as it is, Carmel Dean’s Well-Behaved Women would get top marks for being so spectacularly well timed. So shall we say 10 stars? I’m comfortable with that. To have a show so exquisitely aligned with the most pressing social and political issue of the day is a gift. To have it so brilliantly performed is another. Well-Behaved Women went off on opening night. It was a joy to be there.
Zahra Newman, Ursula Yovich, Stefanie Caccamo and Elenoa Rokobaro in Into the Daybreak (Still I Rise) in Well-Behaved Women. Photograph © David Hooley
The title is a tease, obviously. American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich made the impeccable observation in 1976 that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. She was writing about Puritan funeral services and didn’t mean to incite revolution but the phrase took flight.
Dean’s cycle of 14 songs brings together an eclectic group of women through the ages, most but not all famous in their field. To make reference to a rather larger piece of music theatre currently running in Sydney (that would be Hamilton), Well-Behaved Women doesn’t just put the spotlight on women’s stories. It’s also a powerful reminder of the deeper question of who gets to tell the story; how the perspective of the teller colours (perverts?) history. And we don’t need to be told that the tellers of women’s stories have almost overwhelmingly been men.
Well-Behaved Women rolls up its sleeves and starts from the beginning, with Eve. Was it God’s plan, muses an amused Zahra Newman, to make her “the scapegoat for all of men’s sins”? Dean slyly makes In the Beginning a sultry, torchy, fun, flirtatious number. Eve is the kind of woman about whom men say “it’s not my fault; she made me do it”. Dean doesn’t make a big deal about that but it’s bubbling away there, introducing Dean as a tremendously engaging composer and lyricist. Her songs vary widely in musical style and tone but there are two constants. The first is the clarity and force of her lyrics. Some of the songs are narratives while in others emotional states are to the fore, but all hit their mark without fail. The second constant is Dean’s seemingly endless access to melodies that feel absolutely right for the context – yes, even when Mary Magdalene (Stefanie Caccamo, priceless) resorts to country to describe the difficulty of being the only woman at a particularly famous supper table.
Dean, an Australian who has been a long-time resident of New York, has worked widely in music direction, arranging and orchestration. Only recently has she turned to writing her own material and she’s a natural.
Boudicca gets the rock treatment, naturally, in The Warrior Queen, for which Ursula Yovich unleashes a ferocious roar. For Janet Armstrong (Newman) – the only woman for whom the descriptor “wife of” is needed – there’s a delicate ballad describing her part in the first manned moon-landing. Elenoa Rokobaro brings the house down with the rocky, bluesy Stay and Fight, in which Cleopatra affirms that she will not, in fact, calm down. Gospel is heard in Harriet Tubman’s gorgeous, inspiring On the Railroad (Newman again). All four singers come together for the stirring finale, Maya Angelou’s Into the Daybreak (Still I Rise). Was that a speck of dust in my eye at that point?
All these differently coloured threads and more are woven into whole cloth by the power of the stories and the wonderful performers who tell them. Yovich, Rokobaro, Newman and Caccamo (to give the reverse-order alphabetical listing in the program) are dream casting and they are supported by an equally versatile four-woman onstage band in the form of music director Claire Healy on keyboard, Alysa Portelli (drums), Amanda Jenkins (bass) and Danica Hobden (guitar).
With Blazey Best as director, Melanie Liertz as designer, Jasmine Rikz as lighting designer, David Grigg as sound designer and Adrienne Patterson as stage manager, the line-up both out the front and backstage is as good as it gets. It’s a pity the season is so short but if producer Michelle Guthrie isn’t fielding multiple offers to take Well-Behaved Women far and wide it will be a crime.
For this premiere Australian season – may there be many more – Dean has written songs for runner Cathy Freeman (Yovich, sublime) and swimming pioneers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie (Newman and Caccamo in the show’s only duet). One wouldn’t wish any of the other women to be given the nudge because every moment, every experience, is a winner, but one more Australian woman, one from a field other than sport, would have been welcome. Well-Behaved Women is over in only 65 minutes. I think I can say for all present on opening night we would have been happy to make it 70.
Well-Behaved Women is at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, until 28 March