Reviewed by Jye Cannon

With a title proclaiming the empathetic exploration of the human condition, this new-age independent theatre company makes a statement that theatre is no longer just a source of entertainment but a form of therapy, telling stories both linear and abstract yet never unfamiliar to us as a way to further connect all in the room to a common denominator: our humanity. With this in mind, there is an expectation. The audience seeks to be swept in the tides of emotion and pathos that is embedded in the stories we tell and the stories we live.

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And Fugitive Songs reaches its goal effortlessly.

Written by award-winning songwriters Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting, The Burnt Part Boys) and marking both its Australian debut and 10 years since its New York production, the 19-song pilgrimage that is 'Fugitive Songs' takes the audience hiking down all different walks of life in a condensed and nuanced song cycle. With a score that amalgamates elements of traditional folk music with contemporary pop – and even an R&B flare – we are shown picaresque vignettes of the lives of those whose destiny it is to escape, fleeing from the day-to-day that we know all too well: lovers, friends, expectations, work, legal matters, trauma, problems, and the rest.

With themes so entwined within our restless identity-strong era, Director Dirk Hoult (We Were There, One in Seven, Oprahfication) proves himself as a formidable force as he presents an excellently refined display of what could very well have fallen into the trap of being an empty show due to its bare structure. With a minimalist set and the band on stage in two separate portions, Hoult has the tight cast immaculately manage to set a scene in a mere moment before melding into the next through the simple use of body, poise and positioning. With light choreographed movement accentuating the throwing around of thought and the unbalanced lifestyles discussed in the pieces, the movement of the production never falters nor detracts from the flow of it, causing an otherwise clunky production to smooth over and trace beautifully through from start to end. Hoult's interpretation of the themes through the use of the actors' locality with one another and the way they both interact and isolate goes to reinforce ultimately the beauty and grievance of running away from it all.

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This image is, of course, bolstered by the visual designs of the show. Upon walking into the theatre, the boho-chic aesthetic is prominent, with a vintage floral couch sitting comfortably up the back, an open steel ladder towering over the band and an array of plastic cross-hatched crates scattered around; all amongst a foliage of red and orange harvest leaves that patchwork the floor, and all being referenced time and again through the score. This bohemian look was supported by the autumn-coloured costumes of the performers, with reds and yellows to maintain an almost sepia tone to wash it out like memory, giving the overall set a nostalgic atmosphere of backalley New York in fall.

Accompanying this image was the powerful use of lighting designed by Jason Crick. With an incredible fluidity in transitioning between different shots and angles, Crick manages to encapsulate the narrow tightropes to the vast expanses that are travelled by those on the run. With a lighting plot that consistently shifted from amber to blue, we were taken through the song cycle as it itself cycled through that of night and day, of dark and light, of grief and joy, and even of the seasons passing by. Crick's lighting design was precise and perfect, marking each phrase and each emotion with a visual imprint, a map, that guided an involved audience to the desired destination without fail.

Under the brilliant plucking fingertips of Musical Director Caleb Garfinkel (bare: the musical, Spring Awakening), this score prospers and flourishes like nothing else heard in Melbourne's small theatres. The modern score is compellingly nuanced by each individual in the band: Stephanie-Jane Lewendon-Lowe gracing along the violin, Stephen McMahon flittering over the keyboard, Daniel Pickard slapping across the bass, Andrew Rousch steady on his percussions, and Garfinkel himself strumming the multiple guitars whilst conducting; from the gentle swipe of a violin string through to the subtle rattle of a shaker, every note, every beat and every sound echoed the ebb and flow of yearning like a soft shore in a faraway place. Not only was the audience transfixed by the musicians' prowess, but they were transported by the seamless blend of sound and soul that Garfinkel had honed through what could only be rigorous practice and rehearsal; or, otherwise, pure undeniable talent. This was a team that should be feared!

However, it is only expected that there are minor mishaps on a preview. With audio by Sound Designer Celine Kong, there of course needed to be some slip-ups to remind us that this is theatre and we are all susceptible to malfunction! While the microphone volumes were quite low and lyrics were often blurred or missed due to sudden drastic adjustments in volume, Kong's sound design was enough to hook us in and keep our ears on edge.

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And lastly, the deadly cast of desperados themselves. Fugitive Songs features a phenomenal and professional combination of persons and performers: recent WAAPA graduate Bailey Dunnage plays the dynamic and bedazzled youngster with a voice of liquid platinum, Jessica Papst (Carole King: The Songbook of Her Life, Great Southern Band) dons her promiscuity with sass and riffs it out with an unreckoned power, Luisa Scrofani (In The Heights, Spring Awakening, Motor-Mouth Loves Suck-Face) plays the innocent and internalised youth who can move Heavens with the purity of her soaring vocals, Lachlan Hamill (Motor-Mouth Loves Suck-Face, The White Mouse) broadens the show with his thick resonance and full presence, Saxon Gray (Hotel Sorrento, Moonlite) croons the audience with his suave blue-steel and unmatched golden tones, and rising talent Anna Wilshire shines as the savvy fun-lover with a voice that glides with ease. Each performer brought their own personal flare and reinvented real-life characters in three-minute snippets, showing an integrity to connecting with their parts and a professional aptitude in adapting between roles fluidly and effectively.

While large commercial producers present safe and proven works time and time again, Sonder proves their mission statement of wanting to feed the hunger for unseen productions to be made accessible and to pave their way to bigger audiences. Fugitive Songs is indeed an innovative and timeless piece that connects us all with our dreams of escaping to that “away” in that each character is living a life as vivid and complex as our own; it gives us our moment of sonder, and with a team of developed performers and creatives alike, this is one that deserves its time in the spotlight... or, should I say, the runway.