QUEANBEYAN Players are about to stage “Keating!” the musical, but rather than doing it in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, they’re staging it in Belconnen Community Theatre.
When I pop in on a weekend rehearsal at Uniting Church Hall in Rutledge Street, Players’ president Alison Newhouse is at pains to assure me that this wasn’t because it clashed with the musical “Ruthless” at The Q, but rather because they were “looking for something with a more intimate vibe, more like cabaret, with dancing”.
That’s consistent with some of the history of the musical by Casey Bennetto, which first saw life in Melbourne Trades Hall as part of the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Neil Armfield’s later production with Company B Belvoir turned it into a nationwide hit, nowhere more popular than in Canberra.
Canberra Theatre’s covid-related cancellation of the musical, “The Dismissal”, billed as “‘Keating’ the musical on steroids”, left the doors open for Queanbeyan Players to step into the political arena. Good move in an election year and, yes, the bellwether electorate of Eden-Monaro gets more than one mention.
When I arrive at rehearsal, I find a cast of twentysomethings rehearsing a show about a hero many of them had never heard of before they were cast.
Well not quite all. The late father of cast member Alissa Pearson was Keating’s bodyguard and, as she told me, both Paul and Annita Keating attended her dad’s funeral.
As well, youthful choreographer David Santolin’s father once acted as Italian interpreter for Keating.
Santolin’s enjoyment of the show work was evident as Pearson, playing Cheryl Kernot, and Zyl Hovenga-Wauchope as Gareth Evans performed the memorable tango duet where “Cheryl” rhymes with “peril”.
Director Sara Hull, well known for her production of “The Wedding Singer” for the Players, confessed to being “a bit older than all these people”, since she was a teenager when Keating was at the height of his powers.
But for the rest of them, it was over to YouTube, especially one particularly famous clip showing Keating doing John Hewson slowly. It’s so entertaining that it’s almost showbiz.
Steven O’Mara, who plays Keating, is a public servant in his 20s.
He read “Keating” by Kerry O’Brien in his holidays, but feels he takes out some of the colour from the story because he focuses on Keating’s love of economics. But there’s no shortage of archival footage of the elections to help him understand the mixed public perceptions of Keating, good and ill.
The show, he believes, has plainly been written as sympathetic to Keating, who is the central hero, “a protagonist who suffers in the service of his office”.
It is O’Mara’s view that Keating will be remembered far more than many of his contemporary PMs for his economic reforms, his achievements for land rights reform and his “Redfern Speech”, the latter two forming the basis for the show-stopping songs, “Ma(m)bo” and “Redfern”.
Unless you count Kevin 07, Keating is the last rockstar prime minister we’ve had, so it’s only fitting that quite a bit of it is rock.
Musical director Jen Hinton has assembled a team of keyboard, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion and a bit of sax to capture that to perform a catchy score for which Bennetto appropriates bossa nova, blues, rap, reggae, soul, swing and waltz.
Bennetto once described the piece as “a ridiculously pro-Paul Keating piece that ultimately aims to be funny and entertaining” and he has certainly provided a choice list of characters for a community theatre group to play, far more than any of the big musicals.
Apart from Keating himself, there’s the rubbery-faced Bob Hawke played by Anthony Swadling, the aforementioned Evans and Kernot, antagonist John Hewson (Zachary Izzard) and, of course, Keating’s nemesis John Howard (Matt Greenwood ) who is increasingly prominent in Act II.
My own favourite sequence is the song “Freaky”, sung and danced by Andrew Finegan in homage to Alexander Downer’s famous performance in fishnet stockings.
And will Keating be coming to the musical? After all, he has a historical connection with Queanbeyan, having once purchased its convent. Also, he loves the show – and why not? He’s the hero.
“That’s a good idea,” committee members chorus – they’re working on it.
“Keating!” Belconnen Community Theatre, February 25-March 6. Book at trybooking.com
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