Eureka! Australian musical theatre has struck another rich load in opening Melbourne’s International Arts Festival.

With never a dull moment and leaving not a dry eye in the house, the creative team of Gale Edwards (director/writer), Maggie May Gordon (concept/lyricist) and Michael Maurice Harvey (composer) has excelled at making personal entanglements carry broader issues without trivialising either.

At the heart of their storybook is the difficult love between the Irish emigrants, Bridie O’Malley, carried off with dash and delicacy by Trisha Crowe, and Sean Flynn, played by Simon Gleeson with a lyric tenor as refined as Sean’s courting is clumsy.

Bridie has found her grandfather, Paddy, a role in which Barry Crocker triumphs over the clichéd stage Irishman as good natured drunk. Only his murder stopped his stealing the show.

Sean’s mate on the Ballarat field is the gentleman engineer, Peter Lalor, whose place in history underwrote top billing for Ian Stenlake, whose steadfastness wins back his schoolm’m fiancee, graced by Rachel Beck.  

The leads are buoyed by a cast with more stars than the Southern Cross. Eureka! is ensemble at its peak, with every gesture of each chorus member choreographed to vary the pace. The spectacle is energised by dance rhythms and ennobled by pathos in Michael Harvey’s music.

Michael Cormick as Goldfields Commissioner Grey brings a moral masochism and physical sadism to his ensnaring of Bridie. Peter Carroll as Governor Hotham seems destined to mimic Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major-General Stanley until he too has his dark night of the soul. As his lady wife, Nancye Hayes is more a dipso Dame of the Panto than of the Empire on which her ball gown never sets.

The Aboriginal woman Kardinia (Pauline Whyman) is allowed to preach in Act One, an embarrassment dissolved once her commentary is integrated into the action.

The anti-Chinese feeling on the diggings is confronted and overcome only in isolated friendships, made the more convincing because of the wit of the Beijing actor, Lang Li as Long Tu.  

The chorus of “It’s what women do”, which accompanies the sewing of the Eureka flag, offers a liberationist anthem. Its segue from whores to housewives is but one instance of the strength of women throughout the show, flaunted by Amanda Muggleton.

This is a “Eureka” for our times, wearing its black armband with dignity, never despair, pointing through how we once were to what we might make of ourselves.