Theatre review: Looking for Alibrandi

The Aussie classic bursts to radiant life on stage in this joyous sunbeam of a production.

Looking for Alibrandi is a stone-cold Aussie classic. Since the publication of Melina Marchetta’s seminal young adult novel in 1992, and the subsequent film adaptation in 2000, the story of Italian teenager Josie Alibrandi’s tumultuous final year of high school has become part of our country’s collective consciousness and the central character became a hero for a generation.

Set in the Sydney suburbs in the early 90s, Josie (Chanella Macri) is a feisty, intelligent, and determined 17-year-old who lives with her single mother Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) and regularly visits her ultra-traditional grandmother Katia (Jennifer Vuletic). As the year unfolds Josie grapples with her family’s dramatic history and her future education as well as dealing with systemic racism and her romantic feelings for two very different boys.

This comical and beautifully honest look at cultural identity, class and trauma is brought to vivid life in director Stephen Nicolazzo and writer Vidya Rajan’s ridiculously enjoyable sunbeam of a production.

The cast shine so bright in Looking for Alibrandi you should bring some sunglasses along to the Merlyn Theatre. Nicolazzo and his production team know this, and they smartly keep the focus squarely on the story and characters by stripping away the usual trappings of a stage adaptation of a beloved property. The set design is minimal, featuring a garish carpeted floor and towers of tomato-filled crates, and the lighting and costumes are similarly economical.

This talented team know that the magic comes from the sensational actors and their passionate interpretation of the material. The director keeps the vibe absurdly playful and comical throughout the first act before pulling the rug out from under the audience in the second half with a series of devastating revelations that generate a profound emotional response.

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We care about these characters so much and we deeply feel everything they’re feeling. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself both laughing and weeping in equal measure during a show; it’s a remarkable achievement that will have you feeling all the feels.

Macri owns the stage as Josie in what is the definition of a star-making performance. She’s on stage the whole time and you cannot take your eyes off her. She has the audience in the palm of her hand from the first of her many asides, and her hilarious eyerolls and knowing winks seal the deal. Macri’s performance feels effortlessly personal; it’s like Josie’s talking directly to you.

In addition to playing the mum with extraordinary honesty and heart, Mastrantone also portrays Josie’s loudmouth best friend Sera in a bravura comic turn. Also playing dual roles is Hannah Monson as Josie’s friend/crush John and blonde nemesis Carly. Monson switches between characters at a dizzying pace and demonstrates what a talented and versatile performer she is.

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The entire cast have such delightful chemistry together it’s a testament to all involved that after pandemic delays and shortened rehearsal time due to illnesses they have forged such a palpable connection.

The crowd leapt to their feet for a rapturous standing ovation the moment the lights faded on opening night because we couldn’t wait to show our gratitude for having been part of such a joyous and poignant experience.

This production of Looking for Alibrandi achieves what most stage adaptations can only dream of; it remains true to the heart of the original while teasing out fresh elements and mining the depth and breadth of the human experience to bring the story to a whole new audience.

Get ready to fall in love with the Alibrandis all over again.

Looking for Alibrandi
Based on book by Melina Marchetta
Presented by Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir

Written by Vidya Rajan
Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo
The Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse

Set and costume designer: Kate Davis
Composer and sound designer: Daniel Nixon
Lighting designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Choreographer: Rosa Voto
Stage manager: Cecily Rabey
Assistant stage manager: Harry Dowling
Cast: Chanella Macri. Lucia Mastrantone. Hannah Monson, John Marc Desengano, Ashley Lyons, Jennifer Vuletic

Price: $50-$90

Looking for Alibrandi will be performed until 31 July 202

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.