Bananaland review – Kate Miller-Heidke’s new musical comedy is a miraculous joy

Art is inevitable. We are creatures who make art because we have to, even if it’s just in the care we take in plating an attractive dinner dish for a loved one or in posting a carefully framed selfie. To make great, resonant, soul-touching art, though – a song that tops the charts, a film that changes how we think about things – is so rare it’s almost impossible.

But to make a new musical that balances music, lyrics, sound design, dialogue, narrative, choreography, lighting, set design and more in perfect harmony to tell a story that moves and entertains? That’s miraculous.

I was only able to see Bananaland, now in its world premiere season at QPAC for Brisbane festival, on its very first preview (which was also the show’s first full run-through). It’s highly likely the show I saw is different from the one audiences have just seen on its opening night: it’s had time to smooth out its bump, work out the tech and make adjustments to script and story where necessary. It needed that work when I saw it, but that’s what the preview process is for.

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I’m confident its foundations, bones and heart will have remained intact, and in those I saw something genuinely exciting: a musical that made me laugh and laugh and laugh. And then burst into tears. And then, somehow, it ended joyously – a gift of a feeling I could take with me back out into the night air.

With lyrics and music by Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband, Keir Nuttall (who recently co-wrote the music and lyrics for Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical), Bananaland is a celebration of and cautionary tale about making music, as well as a thoughtful exploration of both its limits and possibilities in offering us healing, solace and acting as a force for change.

Ruby Semblance (Max McKenna) is deeply committed to Kitty Litter, which is what you might call a punk protest band but which she calls an “onstage conceptual art slash music-oriented happening”. She’s joined onstage by her sister and protector Karen (Georgina Hopson), her lover Seb (Joe Kalou) and Ex (Maxwell Simon) – he isn’t Ruby’s ex, but he is devoted to her vision. With earnest, aggressive songs about consumerist pigs and Simon Cowell’s crimes against art, they mean to create social and political change … but that isn’t working out very well. They’ve played hundreds of shows and have exactly one fan (Chris Ryan).

Until a disastrous show in Goondiwindi, that is. Their song Bananaland – a scathing critique of Clive Palmer – has been misinterpreted as a children’s song, and a series of calamitous events puts Ruby and Kitty Litter in a tricky spot. They have no choice: they need to pivot to making music for children.

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Inspired in part by the origin story of the Wiggles, who repurposed pop-rock tracks from their time as the Cockroaches into kid-friendly numbers, Miller-Heidke and Nuttall spend the first act building scenes around rock and industrial-inflected songs, then transform them in the second into sunny, squeaky-clean kiddie pop (Simon Cowell, deliciously, becomes a hooting and sinister owl during this translation process).

Nuttall’s book has likely evolved since the first preview, but it already contains gems. The relationship between sisters Ruby and Karen is heartwarming and critical to landing the show’s final scenes. The script is stacked with sly gags about the business of music, celebrity and touring life; it features children’s entertainers named, wonderfully, Mimsi Borogroves and Jessie Jam Jar (both played by Amber McMahon). When Kitty Litter rebrands as children’s band the Wikki-Wikki Wah-Wahs, they’re given a dog costume for one member to wear. Its name is Dangles, and when Ex puts it on, he sinks deeper and deeper into character. It’s delightfully absurd.

But the musical, while genuinely and consistently funny, isn’t silly. It has a big, bruised-but-still-beating heart that soars above all the caustic, cynical and knowing gags to look at the people daring to put their livelihoods on the line for art.

You see it in Ruby’s searching “I want” number True North, which introduces a more traditional Broadway-pop sound into the show. McKenna’s conviction is the musical’s backbone; it’s better for having them in the role. When Hopson’s Karen sings a beautiful, wearying, love-drenched song about her son back at home, we begin to see how much the show believes the secret to changing the world lies in caring for others. And when their lone fan, the butt of many a joke, is suddenly given a moment to share what music means to him, everything shifts.

It becomes clear by the end of the piece that Bananaland, for all its ruthless, punch-lined shots at the music business, is deeply in awe of how music keeps us connected, quells our loneliness and can support us to achieve a clarity of feeling that we may struggle to find with just words.

We could only feel that conclusion this deeply in a musical. Even rough-edged on a first preview, its potential was clear: this is an exciting new work that will evolve and grow into something like a living love letter to music, musicals and all kinds of dreamers. Bananaland might not change the world but it could lower the walls around your heart. That’s a miracle to me.

Bananaland is on at QPAC Brisbane festival until 1 October