In this celebratory 50th anniversary season of the Shaw Festival, the new entrant on the music theatre block is a fanciful tale of the first grand dame of fado. Frequent collaborators Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli (book, music, lyrics—Sportelli also ably anchors the quartet of on-stage musicians from the keyboard) have crafted an ideal show that plays to the strengths of the nine-member cast and fits the ever-intimate Court House Theatre like a well-worn glove.
Having Jackie Maxwell direct and collaborate is just another bonus.
Due to a rare ticket snafu, the re-scheduled performance I attended also fell on the same day as my screening of Rosa von Praunheim’s Rent Boys. How curious it was to see and hear class oppression and prostitution figuring so prominently in both. Whether it be dazzling babes working Lisbon’s Mouraria or fetching youth plying their trade in and around Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo, the plight of those forced to sell their bodies to the largely uncaring—beyond 20 minutes under contract—clients fueled the action in these two productions which—on the surface—seemed to be worlds apart.
If there’s any serious failing in Maria Severa, it’s the lack of one more independent voice in the creative trust. Overall, the readily accessible music and marvellously inventive lyrics (“We’re drowning in an ocean that’s been filled up tear by tear / And so we try to swim the distance between a man and a woman”) serve their accustomed purpose, but the “book” upon which they are based comes up a tad short in the convincing narrative department.
The set-up is fine and gets things off to a promising start. (“There Is a Song” is a deft, full-cast synopsis; “Bread and Butter” details the, er, comings and goings of the two hookers—Julie Martell in the title role; Saccha Dennis as the sultry, god-rich Jasmine). Unfortunately, the motivations for Father Manuel (Neil Barclay provides a radiant take on the vicar who knows his humble roots and—to his detriment—speaks his mind from the pulpit) and Fernando de Vimioso (Jonathan Gould makes for a generally amenable, neglected-brother drunk, yet his gaily sporting an Oscar Wilde vest teeters on the precipice of character confusion only to be forever topped when the professional souse wins a knife fight with perpetually sober “guitar boy,” Carlos—marvellously, musically rendered by Jeff Irving). (Still, having Carlos boost an expensive pocket watch—despite the late inning payoff—sounds a false note in the songsmith’s persona.)
If this were a musical (where more times than not the plot doesn’t count so long as the tunes “stick in the craw” and the production numbers are unforgettable spectacles—merely walk across the street and take in My Fair Lady—what fun that both have spectator-abundant, animal-imagined sports: horse racing and bull fighting, respectively) these awkward dramatic turns could readily be ignored. But in music theatre (notably, virtually the entire canon of Stephen Sondheim whose melodic and verse influences can be heard throughout the show) the general subservience of music to text demands an extra dose of believability, so including a disinterested third party might have brought Maria’s tale to the exceptional level (imagine what Tennessee Williams might have made of the fishmonger by day, whore after dark, chanteuse extraordinaire legend).
Employing the same cast as the pre-production CD, it is fascinating to compare the two versions. Dennis' tendency to push the “I” in “Better Than This” (one of several highlights from the better-paced second act) in the recording vanishes, invigorating the live rendition as much as her billowing skirt. Martell is also more secure with the challenge of focussed pitch and offers a wider emotional range “in the flesh”—all that remains to plumb are a few extra kernels of Severa’s dark side. Mark Uhre brings his unfailing, glorious tenor to the pivotal role of Armando de Vimioso, the famed bullfighter who falls for Maria’s voice as well as her other charms. “Wandering Moon” was the finest solo of the performance, only to be followed by the showstopper “It’s in the Blood” with brother Fernando as the song-and-dance men ruthlessly mock their own “blue blood” kin—the electricity of both numbers can only be fully appreciated in person.
Also firing on all cylinders when it’s finally her turn to take the tavern’s stage, Jenny L. Wright’s characterization of Mama truly hits its stride in her side-splitting antics during the decidedly cheesy “The Fountain in the Square.” Finally, the scream of anguish from Sharry Flett as the penniless Constança de Vimioso drew a flood of applause all on its own.
Easily the highlight before intermission was the “Act I Finale.” With the company filling Judith Bowden’s perfectly functional set—who knew that Jack Layton orange would be such a timely touch?—and the music finally breaking its predominantly vertical construction, there was an ebb and flow that, if rekindled perhaps a couple more times before the final curtain, would have lifted this sparkling new show into the ring of superb. Nonetheless, it’s still a songfest for all. JWR