Staging a structured, two-hour original musical work is an accomplishment which requires an immense amount of dedication, time, money, passion and commitment. It must first and foremost be said that the daughter and father duo - Laura and Trevor Thomas are to be commended for their achievement in staging their original work 'Decoration Day' at Gasworks Theatre in Port Melbourne.
This review was requested to be styled around the 'show' itself as opposed to the 'production'. As this was what I would call a 'workshop' or 'preview' production (given it was literally it's first public performance), I did not feel it fair to compare it to other musicals which have worked from a pre-written text. Therefore a star rating for this particular review has been omitted.
Decoration Day (more commonly known as Memorial Day) is a US federal holiday that recognises all men and women who have fought in the military service over time and the sacrifices them and their families have made. The musical is set in 1941 - on the brink of the Pearl Harbour attack. The pre-show set-up involves cast members engaging in improvised 'school yard' chatter - which is all well and good except most of the cast were up in the aisles of the seating banks which completely broke the 4th wall for no real reason. Act One explores (albeit briefly) the implications of PTSD following engagement in war and a love story that assembles faster than you can say 'Love is an Open Door'. Most of the act seems to be focussed on the couple and getting them to sing, more than anything to really do with the war, and a lack of real distinction between the school yard characters makes the story line slightly hard to follow. Act Two's storyline is a bit stronger with a Japanese-American friendship used as a centrepiece to exemplify tensions that were immediately created by the Pearl Harbour bombing. (Much like the tensions created between the Western World and the Middle East post September 11).
The music is a mishmash of 1940s swing and modern pop ballads. Musically the 1940s influenced numbers generally pack much more of a punch than the belty pop songs. In the notes from the composer, there is mention of wanting a blend of music from the 1940s and modern influence - what has resulted is less of a 'blend' and more of a 'mostly pop and some 40s' song list. Personally, I'd prefer more 40s influence - when those brass players kicked in the whole show really lifted. Speaking of players, the band (who are unfortunately uncredited in the program) are a group of fine musicians. Some minor cue issues aside, they are a strong cohort. This isn't to say that the music isn't palatable - there are some truely beautiful musical moments in the show (though the lyrics often leave a little to be desired).
The script has a good foundation, but struggles to balance multiple story lines - particularly in Act One. The dialogue is at times quite clunky and segues into songs are either flagged frantically or completely random. The script may be better served with less convenient jumping for the sake of song insertions, and more focus on creating a strong through-line for each character.
As an Australian, it is hard to connect with an American event coupled wth American mentality. Decoration Day is written by two Australians and it does show.The show is missing the real heart and soul of American patriotism - which leaves the ending feeling a little lack-lustre. Perhaps if the show is to be workshopped further, teaming up with an American writer might assist with bridging this gap.
It would be impossible for me to write about this show without mentioning some stellar performances. In the roles of the romantic leads, Jye Cannon and Shelley Dunlop do a fine job as Sarah and Paul. Though their character arcs feel extremely rushed (and Sarah spends most of Act Two being a complete downer), both Cannon and Dunlop deliver strong vocal performances.The absolute highlight of this production is Tayla Muir. Playing the role of Joan - a stepped on, reject who regularly documents school events in photos, Muir delivers a vocal performance that is flawless. Though again, her character arc is a bit swept under the carpet, any time she opens her mouth to sing, all focus goes directly to her.
Staging of this production is very simple and makes it viable for the show to be marketed to schools (as is indicated is the goal in the program). The cast can easily be fleshed out given the many on-stage ensemble moments and songs.
Decoration Day runs until the evening of October 27. Tickets are available here
Support original Australian theatre. Lord knows there isn't enough of it. And who knows? With your support and feedback, this show could develop into something much more spectacular.
Photography: Mateusz Sliwinsk