For city folk, the traditional debutante ball might seem like an outdated idea with unwelcome patriarchal overtones but the deb is still a thriving cultural tradition in many rural cities around Australia. It’s an exciting event where young adults get to celebrate who they are and mark the transition into adulthood all with a bit of pomp and glamour. But this year in Dunburn, the city and country perspectives collide with disastrous consequences for a small town already on the brink of collapse.
Taylah (Katelin Koprivec) has spent her whole life in Dunburn as a punching bag for the other kids, but she’s always envisaged her deb ball as the night that would change everything; finally giving her a chance to be beautiful and feminine and liked by others, rather than the farm girl in overalls who gets called fuckface. Her dad (Drew Livingston) isn’t keen on her interest in the ball and neither are the school bullies Annabelle (Mariah Gonzalez), Chantelle (Georgia Anderson), and Danielle (Jenna Woolley) and their posse of footy bros Brayden (Carlo Boumouglbay), Damo (Amin Taylor), and Mitch (Jack Wunsch). Then, trouble rolls into town when Taylah’s super cool surprise cousin from the city Maeve (Charlotte MacInnes) shows up after being banished to the relos for pulling a feminist activism stunt at school that went viral. Now Maeve’s staunch feminist agenda is threatening to disrupt not only the deb, but the entire social web of Dunburn.
This new Australian musical by Hannah Reilly and Megan Washington treads the well-worn path of teenage dramadies where the school weirdo gets a make-over and learns how to be true to themselves along the way; think Pretty in Pink, A Cinderella Story, or either She’s/He’s All That. But other stage and screen influences also came through in The Deb including the feminist/loser friendship duo from Muriel’s Wedding mashed up with the pretty/ugly friendship duo from Wicked, a scene about the transcendent power of a dress reminiscent of Ladies in Black, or the storyline of a small Australian town in need of saving most recently seen in the Boomkak Panto. If that seems like a lot of references, it’s because The Deb was playing with a lot of strings as it attempted to balance classic teen drama tropes like self-confidence and peer pressure alongside more prescient themes like the effects of climate change on rural communities and the negative impact of social media on young people’s self-image.
So, in a way, the story of The Deb was working on two levels: the fun, playful, but generic teen level and the critical contemporary “adult” level. And this split focus came through in the music, too, with two stand-out original songs, “Someone Brilliant” about Maeve being happy waiting for a partner who meets her expectations and “Dust” sung alternating between Dunburn Mayor Jason (Jay Laga’aia) and Taylah’s dad Rick about how the future doesn’t turn out how you think it will, positioned amongst otherwise familiar feel-good showtunes like “Coming Out” and “In the Spotlight”. This isn’t to say that the plot wasn’t heartwarming and engaging but, rather, that with so many storylines and plot points in play, conflicts were worked through rapidly, characterisation of other townsfolk like Jason and the dress shop owner Shell (Tara Morice) were thin, and greater engagement with unique and original elements would have strengthened the impression of this new Australian work.
In terms of the design, Emma White constructed an accurate rural setting with a dual-level barn scaffold that converted from Taylah’s bedroom into the town hall into Shell’s dress shop with the use of sliding doors and curtains. While, at times, the raw wood beams felt stale, the lighting design by Martin Kinnane worked well to play with atmosphere and direct the scenes’ affect with a skyline carved into the back wall. Additionally, the music was smoothly directed by Zara Stanton but the sound design by Pru Montin could have incorporated more scenic sound to bolster scenes with protracted dialogue and emotional silences.
Koprivec’s performance as the goofy and authentic Taylah was endearing even as it seemed everyone she met found a way to take advantage of her. Her comic timing and ear for pacing came in handy for plenty of punchlines. MacInnes was equally endearing for her youthful pig-headedness and her fierce weaponisation of feminist scholarly language. Her characterisation of Maeve balanced her combativeness evenly against her naivety for a well-rounded performance. Together, Koprivec and MacInnes had a believable dynamic of soft and hard with opportunities for each character to demonstrate vulnerability and growth that formed the emotional backbone of the production. Amongst the ensemble, Quinton Rich’s portrayal of country boy Jem was heartfelt and easy-going whereas the sarcastic energy of Catty Hamilton as various townspeople was a humorous reminder that people are the same everywhere. The tart theatrics of Annabelle, Chantelle, and Danielle added drama and pizzazz, especially in their number “The Dixie Cups” that mixed reputation with raunch like the iconic talent show scene from Mean Girls complete with metallic chaps (costumes by Mason Browne) and choreographed chap-tearing (choreography by Sally Dashwood). Janette (Monique Sallé), Annabelle’s mum, added her own pizzazz by channeling “cool mom” as a triple combo of stage mom, ethnic mum, and Dunburn’s best and only beautician. Overall, the cast were sound and particularly shined in their musical performances with potential to rise to meet more challenging narrative roles.
There were many things to commend The Deb including a heartwarming female friendship for teens and attention paid to the culture of rural towns but other elements felt lacking or overstretched and dampened the excitement for a new Australian musical.
The Deb is running at the Rebel Theatre from April 22nd – May 22nd
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