It’s a brave soul who attempt the noble gesture of an original musical series on Australian television.
In recent years I can only think of ABC’s light opera The Divorce in 2015.
But Andrew Hansen and Chris Taylor give the genre a red-hot crack, tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek, in Australian Epic.
Originally titled Stories from Oz drawn from a Norwegian format, the hybrid series looks somewhat like Australian Story with song, or The Betoota Advocate presents with musical numbers.
Six episodes profile chapters from recent Australian history and lovingly, or perhaps not, spin them into musical extravaganzas.
They include Schapelle Corby, Johnny Depp’s Pistol and Boo border control saga, The Tampa Affair, Melbourne’s cursed Observatory Wheel and Princess Mary.
Episode one revisits the tale of speed skater Steven Bradbury who famously sped to Olympic Gold when his competitors all fell before the finish line at he 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Everybody knows the phrase “Doing a Bradbury” but few of us know the story behind his 20 years of training, and rising above tragic accidents which should probably have ended his career.
The seasoned Hansen, best known for The Chaser, dons wig and lycra to portray the young Bradbury (which is something of a stretch in itself), to illustrate how Stephen trained in an obscure sport in a sunny land down under.
There are interviews with Bradbury himself, parents John and Rhonda, coach Ann Zhang, sports journo Tracey Holmes – not something I’d anticipate for the Schapelle or Depp episodes for instance. But these set the scene for the musical numbers to play out satirically.
A small ensemble cast, including Fiona Choi, Phoenix Jackson Mendoza, Michelle Brasier, Sami Afuni, Nicholas Kong, Amy Lehpamer, and Taylor, assume roles such as coach, parents, school friends and more. It may not be High School Musical or Glee but if Gina Riley is gatecrashed she wouldn’t be out of place.
It’s the lyrics that are the standout here. Melodically none are toe-tappers, and some songs begin to sound alike. But Hansen’s witty pen makes plenty of wry observations that make it worthwhile…. such as “it’s a long hot summer between two laps of skating / I’ll use this time to do a lot of waiting.”
Or when Bradbury has a devastating, bloodied crash on the ice: “This could soon be redder than that Game of Thrones red wedding” and “If only they gave medals for the most amount of stacks.” Or when Stephen must wear a broken neck brace, “You’re Stephen Hawking withot the brain,” and “It’s gold around my neck I want not rods made of iron ore.”
Commentator Basil Zempilas (who even gets a shout-out in one lyric) also features in an interview as being witness to the Bradbury moment of glory.
Hansen is upstaged by the fine vocals of Fiona Choi as trainer Ann Zhang in a song where “Slow guys can finish first” andwe’re reminded “Just believe you are slow enough to win.”
By the end of it all, the episode makes you rethink whether “Doing a Bradbury” should really mean persisting against all odds to achieve your dream?
Episode two focusses on Princess Mary (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) and her 2000 rendezvous with the Crown Prince of Denmark, Frederik (sami Afuni).
Get ready for Hamilton and Disney inspired numbers, with Michelle Brasier borrowing from Gilbert & Sullivan.
Recalling the unexpected romance are Angela Bishop, Peter FitzSimons, Sarrah Le Marquand and Mary’s personal
transformation coach Teresa Page.
Once again there are some cheeky lyrics including “I don’t think it’s disloyal to want to bang a royal” and concerned Danish Royalty agreeing that “Anything is better than a pitiful Tasmanian.”
While the merriment is in abundance, the budget clearly is not. The music production, in particular, lets down the
series with its tinny synth backing instead of a full band or orchestra. The team work hard to pull it together with dodgy wigs, costumes and choreography and it succeeds best in smaller moments than ambitious large ensembles.
Save for one tacky Princess Diana line, the lyrics are Hansen’s best work here, and I wonder what might have been were there more money in the budget and the creators stepping back from on camera roles.
We’ve seen with works from Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect that when the sum of the parts sing in harmony, magic happens on screen. Australian Epic gets the elephant stamp for effort, which is kinda fitting for a show about underdogs. Still, there’s a lot to like and all are to be applauded for very nearly doing a Bradbury.
Australian Epic screens 9pm Wednesday on ABC.