Review by Sam Waite
In this post-Hamilton world, it seems only natural that genre-bending scores and modern sensibilities should be melded with historical facts and fictions. Hence the kind of theatrical landscape that allows a project like Julie: The Musical to close out its recent tour with a stint in the Studio at The Other Palace. Co-produced by Le Gasp! Productions and with book, music and lyrics by Abey Bradbury, this new musical is a silly, more whimsical take on a wildly non-traditional woman’s life.
Julie D’Aubigny (Maupin, if you choose to acknowledge her husband, which she rarely does) introduces herself as the writer and star of the show – a talented opera singer, an adept swordswoman, and a flaming bisexual. In an evening that strikes a precarious balance between musical theatre, live concert, comedy sketch-show and comic opera, we follow Julie’s many escapades from her marriage at 15 through to her passing at 33. The many other characters throughout these decades (the late 1600’s) are portrayed by the supporting quartet of performers.
Sam Kearney-Edwardes, returning from the 2022 touring production, has been promoted to the lead role – Julie herself. Their abundant charm and powerful vocals allow them to maintain likability and keep the audience onside even as Julie openly flouts societal rules and helps the conceit of the concert-as-a-play set up to land smoothly. However, this easy to love performance still leans into the brashness and occasional fragility of Julie, and creates a fully rounded, emotional complex character through the many laughs they aim for (and hit the bullseye every time).
Bradbury’s script finds a nice balance between history and telling the true stories of a fascinating woman, and lending the material a contemporary tone that suggests D’Aubigny herself rising from the grave and, enchanted by the new styles of music and performance she finds, deciding this is the medium through which her story ought to be told. Realising that much about queer, brazenly flirtatious Julie was ahead of her time, Bradbury allows the dialogue to slip into modern slang and for the lead, in particular, to curse more than one might expect of an opera star of the era.
Likewise, the score is charmingly anachronistic, bringing in elements of pop, rock, folk and chamber music, along with musical nods to Julie’s operatic career, and more traditional musical theatre fare. With instruments played live on stage by the cast, who also assisted with arrangements of both the instrumentation and harmonies, there is a real immediacy to the material, emphasising the off-the-cuff, real-time feeling the performance achieves. In around 26 songs, the musical manages the comedic highs of “Lesbians Don’t Exist”, the fiery passion of “Burn Bright”, and the emotional warmth of “Unnormal Lives”, all without a number which allows your mind to wander or thoughts of how badly you need the toilet to seep in.
Those other cast members, Sophie Coward, Fabien Soto Pacheco, Georgia Liela Stoller, and Alexander Tilly, are all consistently magnificent as both musicians and as actors. Each has moments of pure gold, mining short but sweet character roles for comedic genius. Stoller has the most emotionally resonant of the roles, as Julie’s lover Marie, counterbalanced against her earlier role as Seranne, a would-be Lothario and hustler. Tilley also gets a meaty primary role as a farm-boy turned star performer, who is also Julie’s annoying sidekick turned brutal frenemy. Pacheco and especially Coward change roles with lightning speed and precision, with their work as both allies and enemies consistently getting laughs, especially when later moments imply the show-within-a-show going off course and their corrections having to come across as not only fast and effective, but genuine, helping these moments to seem deeply and concerningly real.
Rebecca Cox, as set designer and assisting writer-composer Bradbury with costumes, allows the audience to be simultaneously transported to 1680’s France and to remain in an intimate London venue. Costumes on a rail at the back of the stage not only allow for the many quick changes each actor makes, but present the idea that this is both the stage and the dressing room, the reality of Julie’s life and her version when looking back on it. The costumes, performative and frilly, add to this concept, with them clearly being modern pieces while also being clear allusions to more traditional period costuming.
Sound design by India Day is less obvious, but an incredibly important component. With the harmonies and arrangements so carefully laid out, her work allows everything to be heard as it should – no easy feat with backing tracks, five live vocalists, and live instrumentations, all within a small space where the audience will undoubtedly catch any imbalance. A particularly genius move is having the intercom announcements of the ten and five minute calls repeated within the piece, cementing that brilliant concept of the show as something Julie has pulled together, and that her many foes and allies have come together to help her perform.
A fifth role for the production, Bradbury is also an effective and confident director. Under their careful hand, those moments in which Julie’s self-penned memoirs begin to derail themselves feel so shockingly real that the first moments of this are easy to brush off as slip ups on the part of the cast. With such a talented and expressive ensemble, it would be too easy to allow over the top gestures or clowning to overtake the material, or dramatics to creep in more dominantly as the story heads into darker territory. Bradbury, though, is smart and sure-handed enough to keep both their script and their direction buzzing with a comic energy throughout, helping us to find our own joy in the somewhat tragic ending we knew was coming.
Julie: The Musical is a celebration of a peculiar and captivating historical figure, as well as being an exciting experimentation in the forms musical theatre could take in the future. With this, it’s clear that The Other Palace is still a hub of fresh and exciting ideas, and that their downstairs Studio space is the perfect venue for these explorative, slightly weird new projects to find their feet. With a magnificent cast, soaring score and captivating sense of humour, Julie could live on as a sure-fire smash, not unlike other historically minded musical hits.
Julie: The Musical plays at The Other Palace until July 30th.
For tickets and information visit https://theotherpalace.co.uk/julie-the-musical/
For updates of future runs visit https://juliethemusical.co.uk/
Photos by Andrew AB Photography