Around the world in '80s ways

Back to the '80s is a cheerful tribute to the musical and cultural trivia of the 1980s, from Michael Jackson to Star Wars, as experienced by the students at William Ocean High in the United States.

And if you wonder why an Australian-written musical should choose that setting, you might want to reflect on the number of films, TV shows and songs that have made the American high school experience an ongoing popular cultural reference point, not only for the '80s.

Cast of Back to the 80's The Totally Awesome Musical perform for Rosary Primary School Students. (front) Nicola Hall, ...
Cast of Back to the 80's The Totally Awesome Musical perform for Rosary Primary School Students. (front) Nicola Hall, (l-r) Miles Thompson, Jonathan Ashcroft, Lachlan Whan, Kristin Zeitlhofer, Abigail Nelson. Photo: Jay Cronan

Although the plot remains rice-paper thin, there's an affecting dose of nostalgia for the decade in Corey Palmer's memories of himself at school then. The older Corey (Andrew Haese), now in his 30s, tells us about his younger self (Miles Thompson) from the side of the stage in what seems to be his old bedroom. (Disturbing that the wall posters suggest he was still in it when the Lost in Space and Starship Troopers films came out in 1998 and 1997 respectively.)

Young Corey is in love with girl-next-door Tiffany (Josie Dunham) but she, like most of the girls, can only see the sports mad Michael (Lachlan Whan). Michael is ethically indifferent enough to enough to steal Corey's platform for class president and to leave fake love letters for new girl Eileen (Sian Harrington) to make her think he is love with her.

Corey and his friends struggle thorough the dramas of their final year, pausing chiefly to sing about love and to laugh at bespectacled nerd Feargal McFerrin 111's crazy predictions about computers and the death of records and the birth of something called CDs. Yet it's Feargal (Jonathan Ashcroft) who, thanks to some karate training by a Mr Myagi (shades of The Karate Kid), is able to take some real action over Michael.

Romance even affects the two teachers, Mr Cocker (Brian Kavanagh) and Miss Brannigan (an especially warm performance by Judy Satrapa), although their path too is occasionally rocky.

The films and songs of the era drive the show in swift succession, from Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror led by an elegant Huey (Matthew Lyons) to Corey's Star Wars dream fantasy involving Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia that seems unaffected by The Empire Strikes Back's 1983 revelation that they are brother and sister.

Any show that features The Proclaimers' I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) has my attention and Nicola Hall as Cyndi does a particularly splendid version of Madonna's Material Girl backed by the male cast.

It must said that not all of the voices seem well served by the miking, but this may settle as the run continues.

Most of the time, Free-Rain's production successfully crams it all on stage, from designer Madison Lynch's bright Rubik's cube-inspired set by to the big hair and the leggings and the occasional batwing sleeves of Fiona Leach's costume designs.

First time director Louiza Bloomfield, first time music director Dave Collins (with mentor Leisa Keen) and choreographer Kathryn Jones do an exuberant job with the young cast, probably with half an eye to Free-Rain's upcoming West Side Story, for which this show could be a great warm up.