This season’s musical confection from the Shaw Festival is a seldom mounted out-of-this-world love story that features Kurt Weill’s tuneful music, the saucy book by S.J. Perelman (which first began literary life as F.J. Anstey’s The Tinted Venus) and the language-bending lyrics of Ogden Nash (who else could have worked “beau- or mor- tician” into a line/rhyme?).
The show features a whimsical plot that could work equally well as I Dream of Venus (the famed Venus de Milo statue comes to earthly life when an engagement ring meant for another morphs marble to flesh) or The Barber of New York City (a young clip-and-shave man is instantly smitten when the heavenly body becomes a living bust!).
Director Eda Holmes has pulled together all of the disparate parts (songs, dance, staging, effects, dialogue, instrumental music, costumes and props) and produced a show that clearly entertains which, once the last remaining bugs are ironed out, could move into the celestial range of “must see.”
Conducting the slimmed down score (28 musicians to 10 thanks to the labour-reducing capabilities of digital keyboards; Paul Sportelli once more demonstrating his special skill in keeping the substance while reducing the forces necessary to do justice to Weill’s original vision), Ryan deSouza kept the proceedings moving steadily forward and, with the exception of the chorus in “Catch Hatch,” the voices in sync with the pit. The musicians were more than up to the challenge—especially woodwind specialist Tom Skublics whose saxophone contributions were a constant pleasure.
The baker’s dozen of the multi-role ensemble brought much spark and enthusiasm to Michael Lichtefeld’s inventive choreography (the Cats-like slink and stealth of “Doctor Crippen” a veritable showstopper, while “West Wind” could stand more consistent and uniform foot work). Their literal push and pull of Camellia Koo’s artist-driven sets (backed by a Frasier-esque cityscape, leaving no doubt as to location) made the scene changes as seamless as could be (with only one, although crucial, hardware malfunction spoiling the metamorphosis of still to real life).
Michael Gianfrancesco’s costumes were both a wonderful visual banquet (cops in purple: what fun!) and discreetly supportive of the leads’ characterizations (from loud jackets to “not gay enough” ties) with only the fond wish that budget constraints might have extended the fabric parade with every appearance of the goddess. Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher kept the eye moving where required (or—with assistance from magic consultant David Ben—properly distracted when theatrical slights of hand were needed), yet the initial brilliance of the sudden explosions of strobe became tiresome in their subsequent repetitions.
Robin Evan Willis proved to be a radiant, engaging Venus. Her voice easily filled the Royal George Theatre from the get go (“One Touch of Venus”). Curiously (given the obvious attention to detail displayed in the other numbers), the big solo (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself”) sounded fine but lacked creative movement: the preponderance of stand-and-deliver seemed immediately at odds with all that proceeded or followed.
Rodney Hatch, the instant love of her life is played with a convincing journey from hen-pecked naïveté to bedroom bravado by Kyle Blair. On most occasions the voice is true, clean and powerful (“How Much I Love You”) but his tendency to push to the top (notably during “The Trouble With Women”) is as unwelcome as it is unnecessary. That song also features (in a literal barbershop quartet no less: who could resist?) a trio of men who have much to offer dramatically and musically.
Jay Turvey continues to be a first-class triple threat. His dulcet tone is always welcome, his comedic smarts (delivery, timing, body language) cull more laughs than may even have been envisioned by the writers and he moves with the greatest of ease, incorporating all of those traits catalytically in “Way Out West in New Jersey”). Veteran Neil Barclay (Stanley) can’t match the singing skill, but—frequently the Hardy to Turvey’s Laurel—lights up the stage with his every appearance. Playing the delightfully named Whitelaw Savory, Mark Uhre is in excellent form as the art lover whose passions are not limited by economic constraints. His duet with Venus (“Foolish Heart”) had just the right mix of lead and follow.
Mother (Gabrielle Jones) and daughter (Julie Martell) Kramer left no doubt as to their common bloodline, but the incessant too-loud-by-half whining/screaming had many looking for the volume control. Less, please.
None better than Deborah Hay to play Molly Grant, Savory’s longtime assistant. Following on last year’s riotously successful Born Yesterday, the crowd kept hoping for more and were finally rewarded with “Very, Very, Very.” Sung in front of the scrim (while the stage elves set up for “The Tombs”), Hay proved once again that her considerable talents are enough to draw and satisfy an audience just on their own. JWR