Australia as we currently know it was built on the backs of wave after wave of immigrants; people who came to this newly colonised land for opportunities that often took the form of hard and thankless work. In A Migrant’s Son, performer Michaela Burger immortalises her immigrant family’s experience through songs that span countries, decades, and generations.
Immediately Burger and her supporting band immersed the audience in her Greek heritage with a brief opening dance number before Burger explained the inspiration for this cabaret: her father Luke. But to fully explain her love and admiration for her father, she must start at the beginning, with Luke’s mother and her father in 1930s Greece. After fighting a gruelling war against Russia, Luke’s grandfather decided to migrant alone to Australia, bringing his wife and daughter over later on. Thus began the family’s entrepreneurial spirit starting with a bakery, then diving in the opal mines of Coober Pedy, before settling into supermarkets.
Supported by a band and a choir, Burger recreated the stages of her family history in a series of songs. At times donning an apron or later affecting the accented speech of her ancestors, Burger combined the personal legends of her family with a larger narrative arc of the migrant experience as especially experienced moving from Europe to Australia. Her tone was affable and warm, inviting the audience into her family while welcoming individual identification with ethnic rivalries, forbidden love, and great tragedy.
Direction from Jane Packham with musical direction from Carol Young combined the storytelling with the music organically, nearly creating the smooth transitions of a solo autobiographical musical where song seems to burst forth naturally from the story. At other times, though, with sequinned costuming from Artemis Sidiropoulou and lighting design by Tom Bayford, the performance leant into the glitzy glamour of cabaret for a real celebratory atmosphere, particularly in the final number.
Stand-out songs included one that painted Luke’s childhood dream of becoming “Money Man” to save his family from poverty and a romantic ballad depicting the predestined meeting of Burger’s parents in the opal fields of Coober Pedy. But Burger gave equal attention to the melancholy of migration, her grandmother struggling to fit into a new place in Australia and two accidents that hit her family unexpectedly: the death of her uncle and the family business burning down. The road from Burger’s great-grandfather to her performance on the stage was not steady, predictable, or easy, but it all makes for a great story of love, determination, and the central motto, “Family is Everything.”
A Migrant’s Son is streaming online through Riverside Theatres Digital until September 5th
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