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Theatre Review: FANGIRLS (Arts Centre Melbourne)

Pop-star obsession and ‘fangirl’ devotion are unapologetically celebrated in Yve Blake’s original Australian musical FANGIRLS. 

Ever since its premiere in 2019, FANGIRLS has been making waves. It’s become something of a sensation in Australian musical theatre circles and even on TikTok, where its videos have amassed impressive numbers of views. The creation of award-winning playwright and composer Yve Blake, FANGIRLS is a glittering and perceptive take on fangirl behaviour that serves up serotonin by the bucket load. It masquerades as a sparkly pop musical, but interweaves a secondary conceptual thread, adding dimension to what might otherwise be a superficial portrayal of fandom. It’s both fun and deadly serious, nuanced and loud. It’s witty, inspired and raw. Most importantly, it’s got a whole lot of heart and a healthy dose of joy. 

FANGIRLS brings us the story of 14-year-old Edna (Karis Oka), an endearing protagonist and vehicle for some of those sneaky reflective messages behind the real power of this show (more on that later). Edna is obsessed with the biggest boy band in the world ‘True Connection’ and its lead singer Harry (AYDAN) – along with about 38 million other die-hard teenage fans. As the ‘scholarship kid with a single mum’, Edna struggles to fit in amongst her privileged private school peers and grapples with the universal insecurities that plague the teenage experience. Edna’s meticulously executed plan to unite her and her idol Harry so that she can make him realise the ’true connection’ they share dangerously blurs the line between fanfiction and reality, resulting in an outrageous heist pulled off by sheer fangirl ingenuity and power alone. Yes, not only is this musical a pop extravaganza, it’s a thriller, comedy, and story about love and loving all packaged up into one heart-warming tribute to the fangirls we are, know, and love. 

On its too short Melbourne leg of a national tour, FANGIRLS bursts into Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse with an exuberant vivacity that rivals (and arguably exceeds) the kind of exhilaration felt at an actual pop concert. The adoption of authentic teenage vernacular and dazzling use of video projection and giant LED screens (one of the rare instances these devices are deployed usefully in a musical theatre context) firmly situate audiences in the world of the show. Musically, lyrically and choreographically, Blake and choreographer Leonard Mickelo capitalise on familiar tropes in pop music and culture that render this new musical at once recognisable and fresh. These elements crucially enable FANGIRLS to walk the fine line between mocking and celebrating the overwhelming – and very real – emotions that manifest in teenage fangirls and fanboys. 

Credit: Daniel Boud

Blake’s ability to capture the crushing agony and dizzying euphoria of loving something or someone so hard you might ‘actually die is itself a triumph. However, it is the way she deftly exposes and challenges the double standards applied to young girls or queer kids expressing adoration for what or whom they love that elevates this show to another level. As Blake explains in her 2019 TED Talk on this subject (essential viewing), young girls crying and screaming at boy bands are branded by the media and our language as ridiculous and hysterical, whilst boys and men yelling at a football match are loyal, passionate, and ‘love the game’. Perceived as ‘silly little girls’, fangirls are teased and dismissed as merely dramatic, histrionic, and pathetic. In her show and TED Talk, Blake warns against underestimating the consequences of this societal attitude: the way we perceive intelligence, rational thought, and reasonableness is implicated in this double standard, which is expressly spelled out (with some help from said LED screens) by the time we reach the denouement of the show. This ought not to be criticised as overt didacticism on Blake’s part; it shouldn’t be necessary for Blake to be modest nor restrained about communicating this message loud and clear.

The very last thing I expected FANGIRLS to inspire in me was rage. But I felt real rage at the way young girls are treated, the way queer teenagers are treated, and the way I have been treated for loving things that might not be cool or trendy or academically appropriate (yes, in high school a teacher actually tried to stop me writing about the things I was interested in – things that have now been instrumental to my academic and professional achievements). FANGIRLS did  more than touch a nerve with me, it blew out a blood vessel. As I myself head into a profession where acceptable hobbies include ‘wine, golf and entertaining’ (pinched from a real resume), this show is a timely reminder to unapologetically embrace the inner fangirl and never let her be squashed down at society’s insistence. FANGIRLS teaches  and permits us to revel in the power and passion of young female enthusiasm, and respect the lengths fangirls will go to for love, to feel seen, and for someone to acknowledge that they exist and that they are enough. We could do with more of these stories on our stages. 

As the brains behind the book, music and lyrics (and the show’s original Edna), Blake is undeniably and criminally talented. However, despite Blake’s dexterity with words and wit, a tighter show would have packed more punch. At two and a half hours plus an interval, the show is of considerable length. Whilst the first act is a riot, parts of it could be condensed. The brilliant exposition of how fangirls’ emotions are devalued and how teenage girls generally are made to feel unworthy, which we get in second act songs like ‘Disgusting’, ‘Justice’, and Edna’s eleven o’clock number, ‘Silly Little Girl’, could come much earlier, introducing this thematic undercurrent more expeditiously. Nevertheless, FANGIRLS is deserving of its critical acclaim. Sure, its music might get repetitive in the way the pop music it is derived from eventually all sounds the same. And sure, its plot might be a little far-fetched. But as the show reminds us, there’s nothing far-fetched about the feelings of these teenagers. And the songs still slap.

Finally, about this stunningly diverse, ridiculously versatile cast: what more is there to say, other than that these are names you should remember and faces you should recognise. Karis Oka as Edna leads the show magnificently, embodying all the ecstasy, anxiety, determination, intelligence and awkwardness of a 14-year-old fangirl with remarkable relatability. In the role of teenage heart-throb Harry, AYDAN is perfectly cast. He milks the mandatory boy band hair tosses and riffs for all they’re worth, and is a convincing pop superstar. James Majoos as Edna’s online BFF and fanfiction collaborator Saltypringl is flamboyant and delightfully camp, and scene-stealing standout Chika Ikogwe has impeccable comedic timing, playing the character of Jules with zeal.  

Believe the hype surrounding this fresh new musical and forgive its flaws. Don’t sleep on this one Melbourne; catch it now while you can. Because just like teenage girls, this show is capable of taking on the world. ‘Juuuuuust youuuuuu wait and see’

***

FANGIRLS is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until May 9. You can stream their full cast recording now, released by Ghostlight Records (the label that has literally picked up every one of my favourite MT shows, so you know they’re onto something). 

 

 

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W. Wong

The author W. Wong

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