In Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, beautifully set to music by longtime collaborator Frederick Loewe, the “miracle” village of Brigadoon returns to its Highlands location once every 100 years. I last set foot there half a century ago, conducting my first Broadway musical at Laurentian High School in Ottawa (sadly, there was no miracle available for LHS, which will never return to Earth, having been demolished many years ago). It was love at first song and chorus.
In the Shaw Festival’s 2019 production, director Glynis Leyshon [employing Brian Hill’s revised book] has sought “to bring fresh approaches to many golden-age musicals.” Of course, that statement begs the question, “Why?”
On the other side of the escarpment in Stratford, the Bard has had his canon set in virtually any era beyond the original and happily infused with gender-bending and colour-blind casting. But beyond a few cuts to tighten the pace, the text has remained largely intact (save and except for a few 21st century asides that are mostly cheap laughs). But distorting original characterizations goes beyond the pale: in this instance, 20th century Jeff Douglas is morphed from a philosophical—at times—alcoholic to a wisecracking funny man. In Mike Nadajewski’s ever-capable comedic hands the new yuks (“Scotch mist” as a drink in the NYC scene) gets the sought-after laughs, but add nothing in the way of development; the sexual innuendos with Brigadoon’s delightful hussy, likewise, could have been left in the original’s clothes, with perhaps a touch more body/bawdy language to make the, er, point!).
The best thing going for this production is the visual banquet of images, sets, costumes and slights of hand—both acts opening with a literal deer caught in the headlights (the audience’s), moment that shows just how creative the team of projections (Corwin Ferguson) and lighting (Kevin Lamotte) can be. Pam Johnson’s sets—whether the monstrous tree that turns out to be magically well-read, or a town square that feels like somewhere inland from the Hebrides—keep the eye delighted even as the copious amounts of fog reinforce the locale and its mystery.
In the vocal department, playing Fiona MacLaren, Alexis Gordon’s magnificent soprano, with its searing power and ability to understate when the music/text requires it, can’t help but make all others seem like they are not nearly in the same league. The unexpected love of her life, Tommy Albright, is given a handsome, attentive turn by George Krissa, but his uneven pitch and lack of full-on support result in just good, never great songs.
The show seems oddly listless until the first appearance of Matt Nethersole playing bridegroom-to-be, Charlie Dalrymple. “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” immediately ignites both sides of the footlights with his dulcet tone, surety at the top and a body that lives for dance. His intended, Jean (Madelyn Kriese is appropriately radiant) really comes into her own during “Come to Me, Bend to Me” as the loving couple express themselves best during choreographer Linda Garneau’s “know thy performers” near-balletic movements (original dances by Agnes DeMille). One of the show’s best numbers.
A few shout-outs are in order: Jay Turvey could probably be heard in Thorold when his musical contributions were required; Travis Seetoo’s sword dance and simmering anger were, respectively, memorable and believable; Patty Jamieson’s Mistress Lundie really came into its own when she assured Tommy just what true love could accomplish; as the “how about now? lassie,” Meg, Kristi Frank soared through her story songs and gamefully tarted up with all comers.
On the other side of the ledger, the first hearing of “real” bagpipes was a sonic disaster as the dreaded sound reinforcement only succeeded in ugly distortion. And Genny Sermonia’s “dance of death” (following the passing of her unrequited love) more confused her wretched emotions instead of confirming them (Garneau’s challenge rather than the performer’s).
The notion of escaping the world’s problems—especially war—seems just as compelling today as it did when the show was created or centuries ago when Brigadoon escaped real life by the sacrifice of its staunchest supporter, only to learn that real life has a nasty habit of turning up no matter where you hide. In this D-Day remembrance year, a visit to the mystical clans’ theatrical domain is recommended to all. See for yourself and savour the view. JWR