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REVIEWS

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Being an ardent fan of the 1949 British black and white film Kind Hearts and Coronets, I was delighted to find that A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the novel that inspired the movie, was a heck of a lot more fun than the film. That’s no surprise.  
Photo: by Joan Marcus. L to R: Lesley McKinnell, Kevin Massey, John Rapson.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a sumptuously designed musical filled with some sexy 18th century costumes by Linda Cho, ingenious lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, a sensational set design by Alexander Dodge that that takes you from the slamming bedroom doors of French farce to the colorful comic book graphics and projections of Aaron Rhyne, and a cleverly adapted book by Robert L Freedman, where every murderous intent is executed with a sly grin and a character who gets the heave-ho by the ambitious ‘gentleman’ of the title. Directed by Darko Tresnjak and choreographed by Peggy Hickey, the musical plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until June 26.

The poverty stricken gentleman, Monty Navarro played by an appealingly boyish Kevin Massey, lives in a shabby Clapham flat and  has been tipped off by Miss Shingle, a sudden ‘friend’ (a bucolic looking Mary Van Arsdel with blonde curls and a beatific smile) who seems to possess all the airs of a Victorian fairy godmother, and informs him that his late mother was really a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family who disinherited her when she married for love - a Spaniard no less.  Monty must take his rightful place in the family, orders Miss Shingle.  The romance of it all suddenly descends into sheer despair.  Monty may have regal blood, but he has no money.

He is in love with a gorgeous blonde, the calculating Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams) who is dressed totally in pink and surrounded with the blush of tender roses, though she's anything but a blushing bride to be. She would marry Monty in a flash if he had money. In the meantime, she will marry someone who does. Of course there are eight heirs ahead of him before Monty could claim the title, and as Sibella ever so discretely hints, eight people would have to die before he did.  Suddenly, the wide-eyed boyish Monty, becomes the beady-eyed boyish Monty, and the grim reaper of the peculiar D’Ysquith family heirs, all eight of them played by the remarkable John Rapson.

Since the musical begins with the Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, writing his memoirs in jail, we get a proper blow by blow account of all the deaths in the family as the musical progresses.  At first looks what looks like misadventure to the constabulary, is actually a thrilling adventure for Monty has quite a knack for the ingenious theatricals of murder.

With the exception of a single kind relative, the senior Lord Asquith who gives Monty a job in the family banking business, the others are bumped off on by one, in succession so to speak, all brought to life and death by Rapson: the Reverend Asquith with the protruding buck teeth and lisp who falls drunkenly from the church tower where he’s giving Monty a tour (Aaron Rhyne’s Projection Design is a show in itself); Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a podgy philanthropist who likes the fame of doing good and is lured into visiting the African jungle by Monty where she’s supposedly eaten by the cannibals; a gay bee-keeper who is stung to death, though his lively sister Phoebe (the vivacious Adrienne Eller) also falls for Monty – culminating in a  successful and happy marital union; a beefy body builder Bartholomew D’Ysquith, who is decapitated under his own barbell; the terrible actress Salome, who shoots herself with a real bullet Monty planted in her gun in a performance of Hedda Gabler; and the rake and playboy Asquith D’Ysquith who takes his mistress to a winter resort and falls through Monty’s neatly ‘designed’ ice hole.

The cream of the crop, however, is one in which almost fells Monty himself, the supposedly ‘regal dinner’ at the Highhurst Castle when Lord Aadelbert (Rapson of course) and his wife, the poisonous Lady Eugenia (Kristen Mengelkoch) give an circus side show of the most disastrous marital relationship seen on any stage. It’s both hilarious and horrific, Mengelkoch especially, demonstrating facial expressions that would frighten Dracula.

Arrested for poisoning Lord Adelbert, Monty is back where he started writing his memoirs expecting to be hanged.  He’s not (don’t act surprised), but the finale which mirrors the film version is perfect. And so is the A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which is not only terrific entertainment, but a great start to the summer theatre season. A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre to Jun 26. 300 King St. West Tickets: 416-872-1212; 1-800-513-8720; Mirvish.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Golda's Balcony

Golda’s Balcony is a history lesson with heart. William Gibson’s play was the second – and the most successful - in his play chronicling the life and times of indestructible 4th Prime Minister of Israel.  Tovah Feldshuh, who plays Golda Meir – has been playing Golda since it premiered off Broadway in 1973 then moved to the Helen Hayes theatre where it ran for 493 performances, making it the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. Since then, Feldshuh, who has won a heap of awards for her portrayal of Golda including a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, has toured the across the U.S. and to London.  

The popularity of the show has never dimmed, thanks to Scott Schwartz’s sharp direction which still allows space for plenty of humor, and Feldshuh’s remarkable one-woman performance which is up close and very personal on the Greenwin Theatre’s mainstage, capturing us from the moment the lights go on to its final 90 minutes later. By that time, you’ve been through Golda’s life, her marriage, her separation, her politics, the partitioning of Palestine, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and of course the creation of the state of Israel. The latter was an ongoing personal and unrelenting commitment that affected her personal life, her marriage and her relationship with her children.

But Golda’s Balcony is as personal as it is eye-opening. The title itself is a referral to an area in Israel’s secretive Dimona Nuclear Facility where Golda went frequently to supervise the creation of the country’s Nuclear program. The builders called it “Golda’s Balcony,” though she called it “A view into hell.” The program was born after Egyptian and Syrian forces began its surprise attack on Israel, but never initiated.  

Golda, addicted to cigarettes and her telephone (her desk the only prop on the Greenwin Theatre stage) was no stranger to tough negotiating with the U.S. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (whom she always called by his first name) with whom she finally sealed the U.S’s participation with its jet planes. While it is just one part of the actual story (the October War became one of the most notorious conflicts of the second half of the 20th century), it is the crux of the play. Golda, mourned the death of all soldiers, and one in particular that she remembered as a young boy. “More life for all means more death for some, " she says. It is a constant in the play that in a destructive war, the cost is high, and no one truly wins.

The hour and a half show is punctuated with generous shots of humor that keep the balance between Golda’s personal life and her steely perseverance in her drive for Israel’s statehood. In nagging Kissinger to get on with it, he answers tartly, prioritizing: “First of all I’m an American, secondly I’m Secretary of State, and Thirdly I’m a Jew.” To which she quickly retorts: “That’s fine, Henry, we read from right to left.”

Feldshuh dressed in a padded frumpy suit, and with a fake nose, a grey wig that looks as if it never had an actual style, thick stockings which fail to hide the Golda’s encased swollen legs and varicose veins, her sturdy oxford shoes, and her mottled complexion showing every line, this is a wonder of theatrical transmogrification.

Playwright Gibson doesn’t dwell much on Golda’s earlier life, just enough for us to marvel at how this woman who grew up in the typical Midwestern U.S. town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin after her family emigrated from Russia and then to Denver - the start of Golda’s passion with socialist Zionism and Israel – became the tough minded first female prime minister of Israel, and one of the first female heads of state in the world. William Gibson wrote several plays that have strong women at its centre, but nothing has surpassed Golda's Balcony for characterization.

Much of that is a tribute to Tovah Feldshuh's performance. This isn’t just a history lesson wrapped in a theatrical setting by William Gibson, it’s a triumph for Feldshuh who makes it come alive. Golda's Balcony runs until June 19, 2016 at The Greenwin Theatre,  Toronto Centre for the Arts – 5040 Yonge St. Tickets can be purchased by calling  1-855-985-2787 or online at www.hgjewishtheatre.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Incident at Vichy


When Arthur Miller’s drama Incident at Vichy opened in 1965 at the Washington Square Theatre in New York, it was neither a great critical nor a commercial success, closing only after 32 performances. But time has proved differently for Miller’s morality play about a group of Jewish men who have been gathered up by the Nazis in 1942 occupied Paris and taken to a detention room for interrogation.

The current revival of Miller's plays have hit a new high that includes the New York revival of Incident at Vichy in 2015 which followed on the heels of a resounding production of Miller's A View from the Bridge, and the current much lauded revival of The Crucible set in modern times, while Miller's post-war drama All My Sons has has been a successful addition to the Stratford Festival's current season.

What is remarkable about Incident at Vichy, is that during the ninety-minutes there’s relatively little physical action. The men talk to each other, argue, debate and ruminate, as they’re awaiting their ‘turn’ to enter a room from which few return. But like nothing of Miller’s other works, Incident in Vichy is a play where man’s humanity is examined and put on the line to prove itself.

In director Alan Dilworth’s production, anxiety hangs precariously in the air as the 9 men, from various backgrounds and walks of life, sit in a single line on a long bench in an otherwise empty room. At first, they question their own involvement.  Why are they are there?  Their documents are in order. It must be a mere “routine document check,” says Marchand (William Webster), a well-dressed business man who is a little on the pompous side and is more concerned about the business appointment he’s going to miss than what is happening now. 

But something is off. The interrogator, a well-known Nazi, Professor Hoffman, (Kevin Bundy), and his uniformed Major (Oliver Dennis) who keeps the interrogation flowing efficiently despite his own discomfort with the situation, are obviously more than organization men who are doing this to check documents. The possibility that the detainees have been picked up because they’re Jewish might have had something to do with it. It creeps into the conversation tentatively, then hangs in the still air until Lebeau (Peter Fernandes) a painter, whose anxiousness about the situation surfaces regularly, mentions that he had his nose measured by the people who picked him up and wonders if anyone else did as well. It strikes a chord.

Bayard (Gordon Hecht), a socialist and rail yard worker whose views about the common good don’t extend to the one gypsy in their mist (Meegwun Fairbrother) whom he accuses of stealing a pot, begins to tell a horrible story he heard at the yards from the railroad engineer about Jews from Toulouse being locked up inside the freight trains that are going to Poland.

Of the group, only two have little or nothing to say, an old Orthodox Jew (Robert Nasmith) who is one of the later arrivals and sits quietly, guarding a pillow he has brought with him, and a teenaged boy (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who feels more concerned for his neighbor who asked him to pawn her ring to buy food for her family. He was doing the favor for her when he was picked up. The others will speculate - and debate.

Miller leaves it to three men who will represent the strength and the fallibilities of the group: Leduc (Stuart Hughes) a psychiatrist, who was picked up when he went out to get some medicine for his sick wife, will desperately try and fail to induce the men to overcome their captors who number far less than they do; Monceau, a demure actor (Kawa Ada) who can’t believe that any Germans could possibly ‘murder” anyone. He argues that no one is as sensitive as a German audience who treat the theatre with respect as if they are in church, and listen to every nuance; while the elegant Von Berg (Diego Matamoros), a prince with  a thousand-year-old family name who has left Austria where he demonstrated utter distaste for the Nazis, debates the vileness of their intentions with the deluded Monceau. “That is their power," he says cooly. "To do the inconceivable. It paralyzes the rest of us.”

Unlike Miller’s more dramatic works like Death of a Salesman and The Price, Incident at Vichy relies on argument, rationality, the victimization of minority groups, the forces and the definition of evil which itself depends on the complicity of those who are aware of the injustice but do nothing about it, and man’s commitment to his neighbor through personal sacrifice, the latter a force which crowns the ending of the play when Von Berg actually makes a supreme sacrifice to save Leduc’s life.

It is a play that you listen to very carefully, that has as much to say in 2016 as it did in 1965 when Miller campaigned vigorously against the Vietnam War. The superb production by Alan Dilworth for Soulpepper Theatre has been extended yet again at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts where it plays until July 2. Distillery District.  50 Tank House Lane. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Kawa Ada, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Odd Couple

When Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple had its Broadway premiere in 1965, its two main characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, were referred to in a press blurb as two “lovelorn men, one messy and one neat.” Life was so much simpler then.

The 1965 production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney, was a perfect contemporary comedy with Simon on the way to the top of his game – the production won 5 Tony Awards – and made the then middle-aged Matthau, a bona fide Broadway star at the ripe age of 44. The Odd Couple was about to embark on a long and happy journey, a triple threat on stage, film and television for years. The question is, can you live through all the years of seeing The Odd Couple in stage, screen and TV and not get tired of it?

Never. The Soulpepper Theatre production, it’s the third since 2008, is rock solid and still flies. Under Stuart Hughes’ direction, the show sails with all of Simon’s famous one-liners nearly as funny as they were when the original production opened. There are limits to how heartily one can still laugh at jokes like “It was linguine, now it’s garbage,” and Oscar being perplexed by Felix signing his letter FU (that’s for Felix Unger, in case you thought otherwise.) Like all well used jokes, there is a limit to them, just like having to listen to Dad or Uncle Charlie telling the same story for 50 years. What is still great about The Odd Couple is that the one-liners only serve the script, not drive it. Oscar and Felix are recognizable and very human, which is the genius of Neil Simon who based The Odd Couple on his own brother’s divorce.

In Felix’s littered Manhattan apartment, designed by Lorenzo Savoini, where green in the frig meant an entirely different thing way back when, The Odd Couple begins and ends with the men meeting for their weekly poker game at the apartment of good natured Oscar Madison (Albert Schultz). The guys are the salt of the earth, earthy and very salty – Kevin Bundy, Derek Boyes, Oliver Dennis, and John Jarvis doing the honors. All of them, except for Felix, who is unusually late, are anxious to get on with the game. When Felix finally does show up, he is a basket case, overcome with emotion because his wife of 12 years has thrown him out. Oscar, in a fit of generosity, invites him to move in with him.

Played by Diego Matamoros, Felix is vulnerable, pathetic, and a pain in the neck, his face crumpling like a balloon deflating when self-pity overcomes him. Most of the time, you can’t even like this lugubrious cry baby. You can laugh at his obsessions - and be thankful he hasn’t barged in on you. While Felix pulls his weight in Oscar’s messy apartment, tidying up, brushing, cleaning, polishing, vacuuming, spraying, even planning wholesome meals, his fastidiousness is overbearing. Soon the easy going Oscar is set to push him out the window.

There is one scene when you do tend to have some empathy for Felix. When the twittering Pigeon Sisters from the upstairs apartment – Raquel Duffy and Sarah Wilson as the irresistible bimbos – are invited to dinner, you can almost feel Felix’s pain at trying to make polite conversation out of the air, a wallflower in the corner hoping the floor will swallow him. In contrast, the happy-go-lucky Oscar is as anxious to get on with his sex life as Felix is content to wallow in his memories.  Albert Schultz’s rumpled Oscar, sloppy t-shirt, protruding stomach and baseball cap, is everyman at ease, the good life, the happily single life. Behind in his alimony, ahead in poker, the only thing Oscar doesn’t need is Felix behaving like a wife.

The barbs begin, and as in all Neil Simon plays, the repartee is priceless. No one you know may be as quick witted as Simon’s stage characters are, but at least they sound like real people who have a sense of humor. Refreshingly 1960’s in the era of live communication, when Felix and Oscar talk on the phone to their wives, they actually walk to the telephone in the living room - no cell phones, no e-mails. Communication actually took some effort way back when.  Small wonder The Odd Couple has a happy ending. The Odd Couple plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until June 11. The Young Centre for the Performing Arts. 50 Tank House Lane, Historic Distillery Area. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416-866-866 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Albert Schultz, Diego Matamoros, Kevin Bundy.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Skylight


Imagine a love story in which two people are so disparate, so ill-matched, it’s hard to see what they found in each other. Then again, it might not be that surprising since it’s the story of half the relationships in the world. British playwright David Hare has taken that very theme and done one better, making politics as much a divisible item in this relationship as personality. Combine these two themes with a healthy dose of social criticism and you have a fascinating tapestry of a disastrous love affair.

Set in the 1990’s, the era of British Premiere Margaret Thatcher’s popular capitalism, Director Larry Moss’s naturalistic approach is compounded by Debra Hanson’s working girl’s set located in East Hampton that smacks of small budget and minimum comfort. It’s just fine for the pragmatic Kyra Hollis, played by the wonderful Sarah Topham, a teacher in a local school, who has made it somewhat of a home, even though the portable heater never works properly. It’s certainly noticed by Edward Sergeant her first visitor, a hyperactive young man (Tim Dowler-Coltman) who bursts into her apartment on a bitter cold night.  He has come to tell her that since his mother passed away, his father has been acting peculiarly. Edward admonishes Kyra for running out of him and parents a few years earlier.
 
At this point, we wonder just where this is all leading.  Has Kyra been the family’s live-in, the young man’s nanny, or a social secretary? Hare leaves us in the dark for a good part of the first 20 minutes or so, until we learn that Kyra, who managed Tim’s growing restaurant business, had lived in Tim’s swanky home with his Dad and Alice, his sick mother. She was obviously close to the family.

She was also secretly Tom’s mistress and ended the affair when Alice was dying. Though Kyra was fond of Alice, there seemed to have been genuine affection here between Kyra and the young Tim -  more brotherly and sisterly -  who is about to leave her flat as quickly as he came, since his dad Tom Sergeant, a wealthy restauranteur, is about to find Kyra again, the girl who simply disappeared.

It takes a while for the rest of the story to unfold, but the emotional drive that powers it makes for some eager listening. Tom, unaware that his son has visited Kyra earlier that evening, is a self-important know-it-all man who has built his successful restaurant chain from the ground up, a fervent capitalist who can’t understand Kyra’s new found freedom, her guiding light of a profession, teaching under privileged kids in a school in the worst part of the city. His informed opinions range from telling Kyra the best way to make a sauce for the spaghetti – which we smell cooking throughout the entire first act – to how to live her life. “I’m sick of this denial of human potential,” he rages.  But Lindsay G. Merrithew plays Tom with so much affectation, it's hard to believe that anybody else’s human potential would seem to truly color his world.

Despite their mutually satisfying professional lives, each of these characters have their own emotional baggage that has weighted them down. Tom Sergeant is ridden with guilt over the death of his wife. He and Kyra, a close friend to Alice and a talented and trusted manager of one of his restaurants, had engaged in a six year love affair in the Sergeant home. When Alice, already, ill, discovered the affair, Kyra fled into the night and into a new life. Why both men have found her after such a long absence at the same time, on the same night, is one of those mysteries we must rise above.

Skylight, a reference to a room with a skylight that Tom Built for his wife as she was dying, is a panacea for his guilt. “We gave her the picture she wanted to see,” he rationalizes. It wasn’t. Faced with Kyra’s brutal honesty, Tom’s only response is “She used her death as a way of punishing me.”

Skylight is a verbal duet between two people – the teenaged son, Edward, played with a wiry nervousness by Tim Dowler-Coltman, seems only a bridge in this atonal concert of voices.  The dialogue is so exhilarating and intelligent that the swift movement of emotions generates as much movement as if the characters were engaged in an actual duel to the death. Sara Topham’s calm and self-confident Kyra, is a precise articulate note in a badinage of recriminations, self-pity and pretentiousness by Tom.

Are we surprised that they part forever with the certainty of missed emotions?  Not really. We leave the theatre with the satisfaction of having heard some brilliant semantics about life choices. And then there’s the smell of the spaghetti sauce, which doesn’t figure into any of this, but has followed us out in the night air anyway. Skylight is presented by Hidden Cove Productions and plays until July 9 at the Berkeley St. Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Tickets through SkylightTO.com and at the Berkeley Street Theatre box office.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.


ONTARIO OUTDOOR THEATRE REVIEWS
Millbrook Ontario

4th Line Theatre

The Hero of Hunter Street


One of the most unique open air summer theatres in Ontario, the 4th Line Theatre offers real life front page stories about real people and real events.  Many of the stories are unknown to audiences, which is what makes the 4th Line’s season opener, The Hero of Hunter Street, so compelling. The story is about the 1916 explosion which destroyed the Quaker Oats Factory in Peterborough, killing or seriously wounding many of its workers, many of them immigrants who had come to Canada looking for a better life. Directed by Kim Blackwell, the theatre’s Artistic Director, and written by playwright Maya Ardal, the production which is sponsored by Quaker Canada, plays in Millbrook until July 23 at the Winslow Farm.
Photo: by Wayne Eardley Brookside Studio. L to R: Monica Dottor, Ryan Hollyman in The Hero of Hunter Street.

The Hero of Hunter Street is a sprawling drama that stars Monica Dottor, Ryan Hollyman and features the 4th Line debut of Mac Fyfe. The huge ensemble features 41 actors playing over 75 characters.  It seems a formidable task for any director, yet Blackwell who has been the theatre Creative Director since the company’s debut, is used to the large casts, comprised of both adults and children, seasoned professional and community theatre actors, and newcomers. On 4th Line’s generous stage area which overlooks a country proud grassy field that stretches far beyond the playing area, the cast of The Hero of Hunter Street seems to comprise a small town in itself.

The strength of Ardal’s script is melding the personal with the general, engaging us in the hardships facing the new Irish and Italian immigrants in a strange land as they try to support their families, learn a new language, and fit into a sometimes daunting environment which also zeroes in on their own prejudices with each other - as well as zeroing in on the individuals who are the heart of the play.  Ardal turns the attention to one particular family, the O’Briens.  The stalwart Laura O’Brien is played by Monica Dottor, who captures the both the discipline  and the nurturing power of the pioneer women of earlier times, and Mac Fyfe as the hard-working Dennis O’Brien, a foreman at the Quaker Oats factory, who surprises his wife with the down payment on a small house for his family. It won’t be a favorable decision for Laura who delays telling her husband she’s expecting a baby. Until it’s too late.

The O’Brien children, daughters Irene (Frances Loiselle) and Kay (Maude Rose Craig), who are expected to be helpful learning family values as  future mothers  and wives themselves, older son Joe (Justin Laurie) who without telling his parents, enlists in the war, and the adventurous younger son George (Liam Davidson) who amuses himself by wandering around Peterborough’s streets where he discovers a circus con man who calls himself Alex The Strong Man (Mac Fyfe in the dual role) who looks as if he stepped out of a comic book, and his intrepid, bleached blonde wife Gertie played by Monica Dottor. These aren’t the only dual roles in the play taken on by one actor,  but it shows off the versatility of these two talented performers, who are very good in either of their roles, and so well made-up and costumed (Designer Clarke Stanley gets kudos for these two), that you wouldn’t really know you’ve just seen them as other characters.

Alex the Strong Man and Gertie provide the comedy in the play as well as provide the atmosphere of the era. With the First World War in full mode overseas, the vaudevillian entertainers who travelled the circuit of small towns were often a necessary road show for supplying some amusement and levity as the men marched off to war.

All of the elements of The Hero of Hunter Street are neatly foreshadowed by Ryan Hollyman as The Man, in a role similar to the friendly Stage Manager of Our Town. The Man is always there to steer us in the direction as to what’s significant, or amusing or sentimental or heart rending. The explosion on of the Quaker Oats factory on Dec. 11th as the town was preparing for Christmas, is well handled by director Blackwell.  With a deafening  crack (Beau Dixon has delivered  the sound effects with Richard Szajkpowski’s outstanding pyrotechnics), the fate of the men and the valiant efforts of men like Dennis O’Brien, who put their own lives on the line in a sometimes futile rescue mission,  alerts us to the dangers – and the sacrifices.  

While the O’Brien family takes centre stage in the aftermath of the explosion, there are other affecting performance as ordinary citizens scramble to help the injured and dying.  Hilary Wear as Sophia Lorenos, a former nurse in Italy, is especially moving as she demands to be allowed to help the injured.

On Julia Tribe’s effective multi-layered set which takes you inside the O’Brien’s home, next door to the Quaker Oats factory, the upper level of the stage area where the female immigrant workers sew the casings for the oats, and the stage area where the townspeople gather and other family lives are played out, there’s no corner which isn’t used. Added to this are the 17 pleasant musical songs written by Maya Ardal, which don’t define the show as a musical so much as a show with music, gives further richness to a production which is an outstanding contribution to Ontario’s outdoor theatre scene. The Hero of Hunter Street plays until July 23 at the 4th Line Theatre. Tuesday to Saturday at 6 pm. Additional performance Monday, July 18, 2016; 4th Line Theatre. 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, ON L0A 1G0. Direct Line 705-932-4503;Toll Free 1 800 814-0055;Fax 705 932-3347.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


OTTAWA
National Arts Theatre
Belles Soeurs

A  chorus of  unglamorous  women of various shapes and sizes files onto the upper level of the  proscenium arch that frames the  kitchen where Germaine Lauzon (Astrid Van Wieren) and her “soeurs” are about to  party,  pasting  one million trading stamps into those booklets, making Germaine’s dream of owning all the items in the store catalogue, a reality at last. Little does she know that her dreams will come crashing down before the performance ends. A band of five talented musicians tucked into either side of the small kitchen space raises the excitement level and carries us  beyond a traditional Broadway style of glitzy performance.

This new English language production of Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs, a reworking of the French musical production presented in 2010 and originallystaged as a play in 1968, is actually not far from Tremblay’s original conception of the work. True, there is music, there are lyrics in English, and the original joual which was the essence of Tremblay’s  statement about Québécois culture, has been  replaced  by lyrics in standard English. Even the ending has changed radically. Yet, it works because director René Richard Cyr,  composer Daniel Bélanger,  adaptor of the English Book and Lyrics Brian Hill, musical adaptation and additional music by Neil Bartram and the musical direction by Chris Barillaro, have collectively  reinvented a stage language that compensates  for all that has changed.  

The final scene no longer ends as it did in the play with Germaine in despair and confusion as the chorus sings OH CANADA, which suggests independence was no longer possible because the Québécois were still fighting among themselves. That ending even fuelled a debate in 1968 about the nationalistic charge of this show.

This new show is a feminist statement telling us that the women will finally take charge of  their own lives in spite of all the squabbling.  Germaine rises to the occasion declaring she will no longer be subjected to the will of the church, to the oppression of men. She and her sisters will go out on their own and make it happen.  The triumphant tone leaves the audience with a sense that all the underprivileged women of Canada are now facing a good struggle for a brighter future. The feeling of purification was immense.

In spite of a smaller cast, this musical version has maintained a vibrant chorus, inspired by  Greek theatre which is central to the author’s  work. Tremblay,a great fan of opera, constructs the play with  solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets  already paving the way for the musical numbers that take their cues from the text. Each number has the women challenge their surroundings and revealing their struggles, but not before confessing their secret lives, as well as their ignorance,  jealousy and narrow mindedness, and their blind subservience to religion. Clearly,  the  author both hates and pities  these women so that irony, satire, irritation,  annoyance and much ridicule all combine to create an attractive mixture that holds our attention all the way through.

The quartet (originally a quintet) that roars out “It’s a dull life” (une maudite vie plate) captured the anger and the rage of these women whose lives are unbearably  monotonous. Neil Bartram’s additional music which suggests whiffs of Kurt Weil , Steven Sondheim, and a highly expressionist pounding of drums, bass notes and kitchen utensils, underscored by  the women stamping their feet, transforms their  frustration into a furious dance around the kitchen table (choreographed by Linda Garneau) that  pumped up the energy and foretold all that was to come.

The  music is not just an accompaniment  but a real partner whose creative presence establishes the emotional tone of each number, often revealing deeper  hidden tension, underscoring  the threat of the more disturbing  nuances of  meaning  that  the lyrics don’t necessary  tell us. As the creative confusion gets started and the sisters start licking stamps, each character takes to the spotlight and tells her story!

Lisa Horner as Lisette de Corval  is the guest who thinks she is superior to them all  because she has been to Paris where everything is so much more “ civilized” -  an ironic but semi-serious anti-French crack against the former colonizer -  but Mme de Corval is also  the object of local ridicule with her fancy clothes and fussy ways. Underlying that laughter however is a nasty critique of that woman who is embarrassed by her friends who are not as high class as she would like them to be, but De Corval herself is the snob and the  embarrassment. 

In the original play, De Corval speaks a strange mixture of local ‘joual’ deformed by someone who speaks what she considers to be “Parisian French!”  But since the language of the show is now standard English, her whole persona that hinged on that phony imitation of “proper French” is gone, and what appears in its place is a hilarious parody of an opera Diva.  She warbles a grand solo about how she is ashamed of this working class scum, all the while conducting the orchestra with great awkward gestures,  flirting with the audience, with the musicians,  nd maintaining her original upper class pretense that  is cut down by her inappropriate gestures and clownlike stance. Such  compensation strategies were brilliant!

Many solos that became confessional monologues where the singers, frozen under a spotlight, expressed all their hidden fears, their anguish, the frustrations, their guilt,  living in a world where church morality and small minds have oppressed them all their lives and where men make their lives unbearable. The Ode to  Bingo was perhaps the most  significant collective moment when  all the women sing their hearts out  the minute they learn that Bingo has returned to the neighbourhood. 

As the  music  rises and the choreography builds, that tribute to their favourite game becomes a wild orgiastic experience where they are all panting, screaming and  gesticulating, leaping on the table in a frenzy of emotion. Such trivia becomes their ultimate moment of excruciating pleasure which, far from a caricature, becomes both  pathetic and sadly funny. And the music brings it all to the
foreground.

There is that dramatic return of Pierrette  the fallen sister, sung by  Geneviève Leclerc. Her enormous voice ripples through the theatre, confronting the chorus of furies hovering around her, shrieking insults at the devilish creature who has dared to show her face among them. A defining moment  in the show, Leclerc’s  magnificent voice  epitomizes Pierrette’s freedom and independence  that Germaine’s daughter Linda Lauzon has been seeking since the very first scene, right until the  final  discovery  of betrayal amid the roaring laughter of the jealous  sisters. 

This musical tragedy which keeps the audience laughing all evening has maintained the literary integrity of the play, while giving contemporary musical theatre a refreshing thrust into the future.  Belles Soeurs The Musical continues until May 14 at the National Arts Centre Theatre. 54 Elgin St. Tickets: Online on the NAC’s website: www.nac-cna.ca;In person at the NAC Box Office;At all Ticketmaster outlets**By telephone 1-888-991-2787.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
Photo: by Andree Lanthier. Ensemble in Belles Soeurs.



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