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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Castro’s Children (Music Theatre Melbourne), at Gasworks - 2 hours 30 minutes, plus a 20-minute interval

Stunning. What a revelation. Such is the power, passion and poise of the sparkling new musical Castro’s Children.


Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was a political revolutionary, who led Cuba for 50 years, after overthrowing another dictator, Fulgencio Batista, on 1st January 1959.


That was when the latter fled with his family to the Dominican Republic.


At first there was great joy at the rising of a new dawn, but that quickly turned to horror at Castro’s increasingly heavy-handed and radical policies.

Photos by Teresa Madgwick

Having transformed his country into the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere, he alienated the United States and preached anti-American rhetoric.


Signing a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, Castro crushed the US’s attempt to usurp his government at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.


The standoff between America and Cuba, backed by the Soviets, also brought the world to the edge of nuclear war in October 1962.


The latter positioned nuclear-armed missiles virtually within touching distance of the United States (the southern tip of Florida is 90 miles from Cuba).


The Cuban Missile Crisis only ended after the Soviet Union pledged to withdraw these weapons from Cuba in exchange for the US doing similarly in Turkey.


Importantly, America also agreed to no longer seek to overthrow the Castro regime.

Coinciding with this tumult was Operation Pedro Pan, the clandestine exodus of 14,048 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the US between 1960 and 1962.


It was based on unsubstantiated rumours that Castro was planning to terminate parental rights and place minors into Communist indoctrination centres.


The operation to rehouse the children in the United States was driven by, among others, James Baker, the headmaster of an American school in Havana.


He colluded with Father Bryan Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau and the CIA to resettle the minors – temporarily – in good Catholic homes in Miami.


But, with overwhelming numbers, the outcome was hardly ideal.


The representations of Baker and Walsh in the musical are imaginative reconstructions of the drivers of the operation.

The rest of the characters are creative – though equally compelling – constructs.


Written and directed by Peter Fitzpatrick, with music by Simon Stone, Castro’s Children has had a relatively long gestation period.


It was funded for development through New Musicals Australia in 2017 and recommended to be staged as part of the New York Music Theater Festival.


The latter went belly up, while COVID saw three planned Melbourne seasons aborted.


Let me assure you that the wait has been well worth it because what appears on stage is spectacular.


I knew nothing of Operation Pedro Pan before entering the theatre.

The story is dramatic, powerful and poignant.


The music is masterful, lyrical and melodic.


The performances are mighty – rich and redolent – of which I can’t speak highly enough.


The talent assembled is special, the vocalisation memorable.


Among the many standouts are Bessie Blaze (who plays young nun wannabe Maria) and Lira Mollison (who assumes the role of the enthusiastic Olivia).


Also noteworthy is the depth and timbre in Tom Green’s vocals as Father Brian Walsh, and the angst riddled representation of James Baker by Tod Strike.


Showstoppers include stirring solos from Fem Belling as a concerned parent in Act I and Madeleine Featherby as the adult Olivia near the end.

In fact, Castro’s Children is a particularly strong ensemble piece featuring a cast of 27, including 15 children (with the focus on six).


The children highlighted are aged between 10 and 14, although Operation Pedro Pan involved those from 6 to 18.


Most of the adults in the show fill dual roles – parents of the youngsters emigrating to the US in the early ‘60s and those same kids 20 years later.


As that suggests, the musical straddles both timeframes and is set in Havana, Miami, Washington and Pasadena.


Janette Raynes has done a fine job with a colourful and evocative range of costuming.


Staging is kept to a minimum. The action takes place on two levels, courtesy of construction of a metallic bridge.

There is no scenery as such, with lighting in various hues across a large blank screen at the back of the stage representing each of the key children featured.


That is something that could certainly be addressed in future productions.


The accomplished 12-strong orchestra, led by musical director Simon Stone, is positioned behind slats under the bridge (at ground level).


While its two and a half hour running time (excluding interval) could potentially be pared back, Castro’s Children is an intoxicating piece of new musical theatre.


The highest praise I can give it is that it would be fit comfortably into Melbourne’s grandest theatre, the Regent.


It certainly deserves a return season and is ripe to tour.


For now, it is playing at Gasworks until 13th July, 2024.


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