It’s 9.30 on a Wednesday morning in a nondescript rehearsal room in Sydney and three actresses stand quietly, wearing nondescript rehearsal gear and chorus shoes.
Cue music and they burst into a song and dance number, instantly transporting us to the heady colour and razzle-dazzle of the Tivoli circuit.
They belt out the contagious tune with all the energy of an opening act and – if you squint just a little – you can picture each of them resplendent in gold evening dress, deep red sequined frock and beaded cream sheath. It’s the late 1930s and the fabulous, intoxicating days of the Tiv are in full swing.
Welcome to Evie May, the latest production to play The Hayes, where cast and creatives are breathing life into the story of the show’s title character, whose story begins in 1966 with Sydney’s last Tivoli performance, when a seminal era in Australian showbiz history came to an end.
It began in Sydney in 1892, when Harry Rickards and his New Tivoli Minstrel show swept through Australia, intoxicating audiences with its line-up of singers, comedians, magicians and acrobats.
The rise and fall of what became the Tivoli circuit is told through Evie’s story, beginning in the 1930s when a defiant but naïve young country girl runs away from home with stars in her eyes and steals into the Tiv.
Seduced by this travelling band of vaudevillian stars, Evie rises to her own heights via a doomed love affair, pregnancy, heartbreak and the highs and lows of touring.
When director Kate Champion read the script early this year she was captivated.
“I was particularly interested in the issues women faced then: teenaged pregnancy, leaving home at a young age and daring to have a career and not choose marriage and children; and [Evie’s] bisexual which was an extraordinary thing in that time and is still contentious even now,” Champion says.
“It’s an Australian work dealing with all these pertinent issues and I loved the music. You rarely hear singing in an Australian accent. This isn’t necessarily screaming ‘Australia’, it just has the integrity of being Australian without going to the clichés.”
Evie May was penned in 2015 in the wings as another, somewhat better-known musical was on stage at the Capitol theatre: Les Miserables. Local ensemble members Hugo Chiarella and Naomi Livingston collaborated on the book and music when not performing, before taking it to New Musicals Australia.
Since then there have been numerous rewrites and workshops. Two actors expanded to six, playing around 15 characters performed by a cast including Helpmann Award winner Amanda Harrison (Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors), music theatre star Tim Draxl and rising star Loren Hunter (Boy From Oz, Strictly Ballroom).
An accomplished choreographer and former director of dance theatre company Force Majeure, Champion has been increasingly working with theatre, and says her style is deeply collaborative.
“I’m very interested in the cast’s brains and experience; they’re not all super young so I love engaging them in the process of making the show and not just telling them what to do,” she says.
“Naomi said she and Hugo saw this as a play with music and songs as much as a musical. Its heart is very much in the dramatic storytelling, so with these strong themes and deeply emotional issues it’s about letting the words and music [tell the story] and not overdoing the sentimentality.”
Although this is her debut directing a musical, Champion has plenty of experience working as choreographer or assistant director on musicals and operas including Bliss, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and La Boheme (all for Opera Australia).
Her most recent work includes directing the critically acclaimed production of Tim Winton’s That Eye the Sky for State Theatre Company South Australia. She’ll direct three theatre shows in 2019: Kate Mulvany in Every Brilliant Thing at Belvoir; A View from the Bridge at STCSA and Fully Committed at the Ensemble.
While she is enjoying her Hayes debut, Champion is aware of its growing reputation as an ‘off-Broadway’ theatre, given five Hayes shows have transferred to the Sydney Opera House and Calamity Jane toured nationally.
“All the people I talk to are so positive about the Hayes, saying everything that comes out of there is so good, it’s certainly got a buzz,” she says. “But I don’t think about [Evie May transferring], it’s not going to help me!”
Evie May previews at Hayes Theatre Co from October 12, opening October 16.