Inspired by true events, The Sapphires tells the origin story of an Aboriginal girl group on tour to entertain the troops in Vietnam. The four sisters bring their everything to the band and, over the long, hard few weeks away, they learn a lot more about themselves and the shifting dynamics of their childhood relationships.
The young women have always loved singing together and they’ve been entertaining their community for years with no real plans for anything bigger. When Dave (Mike Smith) sees their performance at a local talent competition, he sees a chance to teach the group some soul and get them in front of much bigger audiences: touring the troops on duty in Vietnam.
While on the tour, the sisters grow in confidence as a group but colliding affairs from the past and future threaten to distract them all from their dreams from the surprise appearance of ex-lover Jimmy (Leeroy Tipiloura) to the possibility of new love in American Robby (Wem Etuknwa) to Julie’s (Lorinda May Merrypor) secret pregnancy. The sisters and their manager attempt to navigate all of these concerns while moving through a war zone where bombs and rogue shootings aren’t uncommon.
Having to accommodate many varying locations across Australia and Vietnam including Army camps and restaurants, Mark Howett’s set is a sparse collection of tables and chairs and one large truck providing the group’s main transport. His lighting design does the heavy-lifting of creating ambience with colourful backlights for performances and bright side-spots to cast foreboding shadows in the Vietnamese jungle. Costuming from Sophie Woodward charmingly recreates the sequins, mini-minis, and swinging patterns of the 1960s.
The characters are in earnest when they come up against unexpected difficulties on their tour. Smith as the big-talking but genuine tour manager Dave is a worthy partner to the boldness of the sisters, especially the sarcastic and controlling Gail, played by Jade Lomas-Ronan, who demands attention at every turn. The two have a humorous rapport that provides the main momentum to the production’s narrative.
Without the superfluous side characters and cheesy subplots that don’t go far, this production shines when the Sapphires are singing. Their set list covers all the greats of soul music from Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye and more than one performance gets the audience’s toes tapping. Mindy Kwanten as saucy Cynthia is a vocal stand-out whether she’s belting in the jungle or singing a beautiful rendition of Aretha Franklin’s mournful “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)”. But Merrypor offers something fresh and easy in her cover of “Respect” and a moving a capella solo of “Congo Lullaby”. Together, the group achieve both sincere and joyous harmonies that demonstrate their connection as singers and sisters.
Writer and director Tony Briggs focuses the production on the potential of a rock musical, centring the soul music and the live performance atmosphere with a live band on stage. Guitarist Mitchell Kwanten, bassist Joel MacIntyre, and drummer Jack Hickey add an extra energy to the stage from their wild and passionate closing credits to the more subdued transition tunes. This element in particular maintains a sense of spontaneity and preservation of the spirit of the music in the musical framing.
The Sapphires is a revival of a powerful time for music in a changing world, told through the hope and love of a group of sisters from rural Australia. It’s a feel-good story with an excellent soundtrack that’ll get everyone shimmying in their seats.
The Sapphires is running at Riverside Theatre from September 25th – 28th