The Arts

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Deadly Vibe Issue 94 December 2004

Shine on, you crazy sapphires

Four of our most talented sisters shine in a new play that’s wowing Melbourne ” and will travel to Sydney next month.

Playwright Tony Briggs didn’t have to look far to find an inspirational story to bring to life on the stage ” he simply asked his mum and his aunt.

Tony was just a baby when his mum, Laurel Robinson, and her sister Lois, headed off to Vietnam for three weeks to entertain the troops with their glorious singing.

Laurel was first spotted singing Motown hits with Lois and two of their sisters at a St Kilda nightclub. The siblings, who called themselves The Sapphires, were asked to join a troupe of entertainers about to head to Vietnam.

However, one of the sisters was about to marry ” so they declined. A year down the track, Laurel and Lois were asked again. This time they said yes, and they packed their glamorous gowns and high heels to head off for their tour in the tropics.

About four years ago, Tony sat down with his mum and his aunty and started taking notes about their tour of Vietnam during the swinging “˜60s. The amazing thing about the women’s story is that few, if any, other entertainers that headed to Vietnam at that time were Aboriginal.

The end result was The Sapphires, which opened in Melbourne recently to a standing ovation. Critics have been raving about the show, which features four of our most-loved actresses: Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza, Ursula Yovich and Lisa Flanagan.

Three of the stars grabbed a moment between shows to talk to Deadly Vibe about singing, acting, dancing – and shimmying around the stage in fabulous gowns, wigs and fake eyelashes.


Rachael Maza, 40, is known as the face of ABC TV’s Message Stick program. She’s also starred in the film Radiance, and has been singing for years as part of the Maza Sisters.

About her character: “˜I play the eldest sister Gail, who’s a bit of a bully. I’m the oldest in my own family, so I can totally relate. She’s the organiser and is often described as grumpy. She’s a fantastic character and hard as nails. Her journey is that she learns to soften a bit and see the funny side of life. At the end of the day, it’s an opportunity for four black chicks to be spunky and sexy. It’s our show and it’s the aunties’ show, because it’s a true story.’

About herself: “˜I grew up with my family saying, “˜Rachael, get the guitar out and sing us a song’ but I’m finding that singing for the stage is very different. From singing at parties and so on, I’ve developed some bad habits with my voice. I think it’s hard to relearn good habits. It’s hard to hear yourself in a live band environment ” we’ve got a live five-piece band playing behind our heads, and they’re fabulous. My voice is out there somewhere in this big sound, and I’ve got to try not to fall back into bad habits We’ve had two delicious singing coaches helping us ” Tina Kopa and Lou Bennett (from Tiddas). The huge upside of doing this show for me is that we’re being paid to go to Fame School!’

About her favourite song she performs in the show: “˜Heat Wave, which opens the show.’

How she feels about home town: “˜I was born in Melbourne, came to Sydney to go to school, and lived in Lismore for three years, so I feel connected with northern NSW and the Bundjalung mob. I also spent some time in Perth. I now live in country Victoria – I’ve lived there for two years. I believe that home is where the heart is.’


Ursula Yovich, 27, is one talented woman. She’s made a name for herself on the stage, appearing in The Small Poppies and The Sunshine Club. She’s also a talented singer, and has released an acclaimed EP, Sketches.

About her character: “˜I play Julie, the youngest sister. She basically wants to sing and moves to Melbourne to be with her other sisters. She’s hiding the fact she’s pregnant from her sisters. She is asked if she wants to go to Vietnam and she convinces her sisters to allow her to go. She’s a little mixed up and scared and doesn’t know what to do ” that’s her little journey.’

About herself: “˜It’s wonderful to do this style of music ” it’s got a bit of soul, it’s Motown and people love that. The old folks remember these songs and really get into it. It’s wonderful to work on something that really happened and happened in a time when it was almost impossible to do something like that. I just think, “˜If they could do that, then I can anything I put my mind to’.’

About her favourite song in the show: “˜My favourites are Chain of Fools and People Make the World a Better Place ” it’s a James Brown song I’d never heard of, but it’s wonderful.’

How she feels about her home town: “˜I was born and grew up in Darwin. I miss the weather the most. I also miss Mindil Beach markets and growing up with that mix of cultures and the different people I got to hang out with. Big cities have all these suburbs where everyone is segregated. Darwin is so small that everyone mixes with everyone. I always assumed the rest of the world was like that.’


Lisa Flanagan, 25, starred in the acclaimed feature film Australian Rules and also starred in the television show All Saints.

About her character: “˜I play Kay, the second sister. She falls in love with Robbie – Sgt Robinson – an American soldier played by Chris Kirby. I’m the level-headed one. I’m really responsible and always looking out for Julie.’

About herself: “˜I got the role after doing a secret audition for Wesley Enoch. My agent called and said Wesley Enoch wants to meet you – he was at the Windmill [in Adelaide] doing Riverland. I got there and he said, “˜Do you know what you’re here for?’ I said, “˜Not really’ and he said, “˜Good’. I sang him a Norah Jones song. He said, “˜Lisa, I think you’ve got more than that and you’re being a bit shy ” let it rip’. My agent called me a few hours later and said “˜Wesley’s very happy and wants you for the part’. I said, “˜No way, not just from that’!’

About her favourite song in the show: “˜Sweet Soul Music ” I love it. It’s in the Act 2 medley.’

How she feels about home town: “˜Adelaide is like a country town. I’m comfortable with my daughter (Iesha, aged eight) walking up to the corner by myself. I’ve got aunties around the corner and down the road. The people are really good. I was tossing up whether to move to Melbourne or Sydney but no way, I can’t leave Adelaide.’

* The Sapphires plays at the Victorian arts Centre until December 18 and opens at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre on January 12.

(story 1/12/2004 end)


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