IN a strange coincidence, Canberra audiences will, in the same week, soon get to see not just one but two musicals about the teen experience.
Elsewhere in these pages, I have talked to Kirsty Budding about the American YouTube phenomenon “Be More Chill”, but even while that’s playing in Gungahlin, the stage of the Canberra Theatre’s Playhouse will light up with “Fangirls”, another show with original music dealing with life as a young person.
“Fangirls,” which enjoyed a hit success in 2019 and had its international prospects thwarted momentarily by covid, is directed by Paige Rattray, familiar to Canberra audiences from her staging of Nakkiah Lui’s hit comedies “Black is the New White” and “How to Rule the World.”
Rattray came to “Fangirls” after Sydney writer Yve Blake and a group of friends who together call themselves ABBA, had created a musical with completely original songs.
“They came to me and I assembled the other components and the creatives,” Rattray says. “They’re a fun team of four and this is their first musical.”
It’s also been a first for Rattray, who’d never directed a musical before but says: “It felt to me less like a musical and more like a pop concert, partly because the story is inspired by mega popstars”.
Youth is a prime consideration with “Fangirls” and Rattray is all too well aware that she’s of a slightly older generation.
“They have just the right chemistry. Everyone was under 25 at the time when they were making it then there’s a kind of exciting energy when you’re emerging,” she says.
“I haven’t had that feeling for a long time, the feeling you have when you’re at uni.
“It had a different flavour to me and it’s converted me to a lot of other musicals… I’ve loved working with a choreographer and musical director as I’m so used to being the one person in the room.”
The show, she says, is dominated by storytelling, effects and the music.
“It’s pure theatre, it’s wild and it’s super-charged with the idea that teenage girls can achieve anything if they put their minds to it,” she says.
Rattray admits that she’s never been into fan culture, so had to research it.
“I was amazed by the dedication, behind the screaming there’s a world for the fans, people who find each other – it can be a real comfort, like sport,” she says.
The story concerns 14-year-old Edna, played by Karis Oka, who is besotted with Harry, the gorgeous star of the world’s biggest boy band, played by real-life star Aydan Calafiore – just “Aydan” to his fans and a finalist in “The Voice Australia”, 2018.
There’s nothing Edna won’t do to prove to Harry that she’s “the one”.
“But, even though Aydan is a popstar, although not as famous as Harry, and he’s beautiful and he’s got the textbook voice, at the end of the day it’s not really about him, it’s about the girls, around their day-to-day lives,” Rattray says.
Karis Oka plays Edna, who Rattray describes as “incredibly truthful in the role.”
“She really hooks into being 14 and what that means,” Rattray says.
“It’s about when you’re being told to grow up but you’re still being treated like a kid – but it’s all done with a bit of a wink.”
Rattray describes the original music as a cross between pop music, a church choir and Beyoncé and praises young Australian classical composer Alice Chance, whose arrangements for the choir are “exciting”.
Physically, it looks and feels like a rock concert with the fun part being that now, because of the pandemic, people can’t get into the big 80,000 capacity arena, so they’ve transferred that to the stage, with a lot of glitter and high-tech representation of Edna’s online world.
“There’s something about this show, it doesn’t matter how old you are, it takes you straight back to the era when you were young,” Rattray says.
“An 84-year-old woman came to the show in Sydney and said: ‘That’s the youngest I’ve felt in years’.”
“Fangirls”, The Playhouse, March 24-28. Book at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.