Those of us of a certain age look back to Robert W. Service as a taskmaster—during middle school, his Klondike rhyme-filled poems were required to be memorized (perhaps understood) and then recited par coeur in front of our peers. Like Jack London’s Call of the Wild, those northern tales excited young imaginations and made poetry seem worth learning. Miles away (and certainly not in the curriculum) were the likes of Lord Byron’s epic narratives, Walt Whitman’s metaphor-rich Leaves of Grass (who knew what “forbidden fruit” an oak tree might represent?) and Emily Dickinson’s personal insights to self. Better still, Service was one of ours! (English born, he immigrated to Canada in 1894.)
How odd—at first—that these well-known (to some generations) verses coupled with the creative imaginations of director/writer Morris Panych and composer Marek Norman to the point where a fully staged musical about the Bank of Commerce (now CIBC) employee with a flair for language could rekindle interest in the man who pined to roam “’neath the midnight sun/ [With] the men who moil for gold.”
The result is funny, melodic, festive and a wee bit poignant, but—like the original material—its art is only skin deep: there’s nary an image or metaphor with the depth of “O Captain! My Captain!” (cross-reference below) in any of the quoted stanzas or Panych’s additional text. Unwittingly, Service’s (Tom Rooney) late-inning comment, “This hasn’t turned out very well for anyone,” sums up the artistic problem without in any way diminishing its entertainment value.
Save and except for a few projected excursions to the local pier, a Yukon musher trail and a brief, if hilarious, side trip to Service’s digs (Lucy Peacock steals the show with every appearance as the bottle-clutching reformed whore whose experience with men drives the bank’s final personnel assignments), the show is set in a nondescript branch of the venerable Canadian company. Ken MacDonald’s rendition resonates wonderfully with turn-of-the-twentieth-century financial institutions where the employees’ work stations were bereft of computers (sums were done with hand-powered adding machines) and laden with rubber stamps, ink pads and wells, manual ledgers and—all the better to keep everything moving—readily rolling wheels. Sadly, inevitably the global stench with all things banking (getting danker by the hour with the most recent LIBOR scandal) can’t help but sully the more-ironic-than-intended proceedings. Hilariously (if a touch uncomfortably), the slight story’s (akin to the ABBA musical, Momma Mia, where it’s the songs that drive the action—cross-reference below) embezzlement subplot only further reinforces the notion that those who we entrust with our hard-earned (mostly…) cash have never adhered to the stated goal of “empty[ing] a man’s pockets without stealing”—a service charge by another name being a subliminal, ironic use of language indeed.
On a more practical plane, staging music theatre in the shoebox honouring Tom Patterson reinvented the same dilemmas as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s flagship venue. With Norman and his chamber band ensconced behind the action (impossible to be either in front or on the side here) the odds of perfect ensemble were diminished from the first measure. The dreaded microphones on both sides of the score (instrumentalists/singers) were seldom helpful and when the dynamics rose above mezzoforte, the lyrics may as well have been in Swahili.
Without a doubt, Rooney’s Service carried the production from the grim reality of virtually indentured work to the lofty dreams of faraway places. The versatile performer sang with authority and delivered his surprisingly smart-ass (somewhat at odds with the poems) banter with engaging style and panache. The opening night crowd (so at one with Randy Hughson’s avarice-informed portrayal of bank manager Mr. McGee) ate it up greedily.
Also impressive was Dan Chameroy as Service’s higher-up colleague and competitor for the lovely Louise Montgomery’s (Robin Hutton) hand. (Yet the purloined sack of ill-gotten gains finished up with a clumsy dénouement.)
Three cheers to Diana Coatsworth for inventive, wise choreography (when you have a talent like Kevin Yee in the chorus it would be a shame not to let him fly about with the greatest of poise and ease!)—notably turning the tellers into harnessed dogs for a magical trek across the frozen tundra.
Ken James Stewart was appropriately helpful, annoying and ambitious as required, setting up a covey of one-liners that Hughson readily paid off in full. Xuan Fraser as Blount also made the most of his recurring gag (emphatically claiming his work space) but its last hurrah from a different voice seemed one helping too many.
Despite the busyness, thoughtful songs (notably “The Wanderlust” and “For Him”), energetic dance numbers and yuks, the best scene of the night opened Act II. Rooney recited “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (even as Hughson savoured the heat) in a deeply moving way that us school kids could only dream about. The words—thus spoken—were enough to reveal the skill that lay beneath and a curious testament to the man who—thankfully—couldn’t fit in, opting to break the chains of commercial servitude one rhyme at a time. JWR