Come one, come all to the newly renovated Seneca Queen Theatre for the Performing Arts. On its flexible stage is an entertaining show that will delight those who love musicals or serve as a painless initiation for anyone who’s never spent Sunday in the Park with George (currently running at the Shaw Festival) or who thinks Kander & Ebb is a law firm.
The first Ontario production of Eric Rockwell’s (music/book) and Joanne Bogart’s (lyrics/book) off-Broadway hit The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) is a marvellous compilation of five distinct styles (Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander & Ebb) with one recurring storyline (young woman can’t pay rent, boyfriend tries to help, landlord demands payment in cash or in kind, older confidante provides lots of advice but little green).
Director/designer John Dalingwater has assembled a cast and crew that are largely up to the challenges of this song-and-dance spectacle where each of the four actors must present their character’s persona in five different ways. (That notion is further explored—also at The Shaw—in Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times—with so much theatre to choose from in Niagara these days, it’s fascinating how the playbills overlap and complement each other.) Alice Burke’s choreography is at one with Dalingwater’s vision, moving the capable cast through their various routines up and down the proverbial/literal staircase with a delightful combination of panache and ease. Only the unexpected appearance of the backstage crew weakens the visual effect.
At the centre of it all (well, stage left to be precise) is music director Kieren MacMillan. He’s a master of tempo, timing and repartee. Whether musically supporting/leading his colleagues or shamelessly drawing extra applause-cues from the audience, MacMillan endears himself to both sides of the footlights and keeps the momentum flowing. Naturally, his electronic keyboard needs amplification (and those levels are fine), but in the relatively intimate confines (just over 300 seats) of the Seneca Queen, the use of body microphones for the players seems unnecessary. Why not go au naturel? What a change it would be to have real vocal production and lose the call-centre imagery.
Haley Bucknall is the five-time heroine: a delightfully corny June, an endearingly-wacky Jeune, a believably-dependent Junie Faye, somewhat out of her vocal depth as Junita in the operatic parody (although she wears the chandelier with glowing pride) and a compassionate hooker-of-the-night—Juny—in the “Speakeasy” segment).
Big Willy (Matt Selby) has a strong voice and lots of charm as he struggles to save June from her landlord’s debt-forgiveness-via-marriage proposal. His Billy never falters (even with the hilarious mayhem of a struggling artist’s masterpieces being literally trashed). William respectfully lets the women take stage and Bill’s vocal and saucily visual contributions to the “Phantom of Niagara Falls” section work on every level. Walking on the wild side is gay Villy in the closet where the audience is treated to a vrai dénouement that evokes both peals of laughter and torso admiration from all persuasions.
Lada Darewych is a treat in her quintet of roles (Mother Abby, Abby, Auntie Abby, Abigail von Schtarr and Fraulein Abby). Here’s an actor who can sing up a storm when required (hold on to your hats in “Dear Abby”) but also knows when to pull back on the throttle and let the spotlight illuminate another target.
As the villains (Jidder, Jitter, Mr. Jitters, Sir Phantom Lloyd Jitter—gotta love those masks— and Jütter), J.P. Baldwin gets to have a lot of fun while employing his considerable characterization and musical abilities to great advantage. His showstopper is most certainly in the finale where Emcee from Kander & Ebb’s masterpiece proves once again that “Life is a cabaret”—even on the dark side.
With so much talent in this energetic company, the first-class material and the remarkably workable new digs, more’s the pity that such a small turnout was on hand to enjoy the fruits of their labours. The old adage, “If you build it they will come,” needs an update to “If they renovate it we will attend.” As the anchor to the emerging arts district where once derelict properties dominated the neighbourhood’s streetscape, there’s more at stake here than just the viability of Gypsy Theatre. Fortunately, a full slate of productions is set to entertain and enchant theatregoers of all ages between now and the end of December. Let’s make tracks to the new Queen Street and become part of this urban Renaissance. JWR