Friday, March 10, 2017

Theater: 'Ladies in Black' Tells A Fresh Feminist 50's Cinderella Tale (but could use more color)

In 1950s Sydney when the city is on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan, young high school graduate Lisa takes a holiday job at Goodes, the most prestigious department store in town. In that summer of innocence, a world of possibilities opens up as she befriends the ladies of the women’s frocks department – including her new mentor, the exotic European Magda, mysterious mistress of the dresses. (Press release)
Based on Madeleine St. Johns' novel The Women in Black, this musical has more fairy tale leanings than first meets the eye. Say 'Cinderella' and you immediately think rags-to-riches (or riches-to-rags-to-riches), dreams coming true and fairy tale makeovers, but Ladies in Black may just change your view on that fairy tale. (Hint: It's not about the dress. Or the man.)

A description from The Age says it best:
The plot takes us back to Sydney in the early 1960s, where Lisa, a bright and bookish school leaver, has her horizons broadened after taking a summer job at an upmarket department store. 
She's soon selling frocks surrounded by working women: her hair-perfect boss Miss Cartwright , the unhappily married Patty, romantically frustrated Fay and quietly heartbroken Miss Jacobs . 
But it is the keeper of model gowns – a larger-than-life Hungarian called Magda  – who acts as Lisa's fairy godmother, sharing her love of literature and encouraging her desire to go to university, while warding off the ugly stepsisters of 1950s Australia: the entrenched chauvinism and blinkered monoculture that threaten to smother a smart young woman's future. (FTNH: Emphasis ours.)

This Australian view of the 1950's shows feminism on the cusp of becoming a movement and the changing world view, especially among young women. At the same time, the Antipodes was full of post-war European immigrants and refugees trying to find a way to call Australia home, and the currents of change seem to buffet everyone, no matter where they were in the system. Unfortunately, the portrayal of those forces and tensions in this musical, is still, essentially very "white", leaving the potential of the story wading in the shallows. With a title that includes the words 'ladies' and 'black' together, in today's world, it almost underscores the fact of how white this show actually is. The lack of POC and indigenous peoples in this story is glaring, despite that it accurately reflects the suburban department store culture (which was privileged and white), but this reality is never challenged or questioned, when, especially today, it should. Perhaps it's something that could be considered for future productions to give the show more depth, and perhaps create a tale that is not just a fresh and fun reflection on the past, and challenges the idea of 'fairytale dreams', but has something important to say today as well.

Despite this unfortunate omission, Ladies in Black does a fine job on other issues and is a fresh take on an often tired Cinderella theme. It pays lovely homage to both the camaraderie of women in this time period as well as their resilience under a patriarchal system that was just starting to come under pressure to change (and coming up against those who didn't want it), and that's not insignificant, especially in a time when it appears those advances in society still aren't as 'normal' as they should be.

Music & Lyrics by Tim Finn, book by Carolyn Burns
Queensland Theatre Company
Regent Theatre - Melbourne, VIC
Until March 18

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