Saturday, March 29, 2008

Canadian Stage's 'Fire'

My declining interest in Canadian Stage's seasons has been driven to a large degree by their selection of musicals. In a way, I find this sad, as one of my unexpectedly favourite shows of my time as a subscriber was Leslie Arden's "The House of Martin Guerre".

But I never really saw the point of reviving "Hair" or "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". These were so much of their time, and their revivals I have reviewed on this blog, and I still think it was a mistake to invest the resources in this stuff.

So when I decided last year to place my subscription order, I surprised myself by deciding to select 'Fire' as one of the shows SillyWife and I would see. There was a simple reason - Ted Dykstra, who has consistently provided me a lot of pleasure over many years in Ontario theatre, particularly with "Two Pianos, Four Hands" (at the end of which his character recognizes that maybe he isn't even the best pianist in his neighbourhood - both characters do), a turn as Bottom in Stratford's wonderful "Midsummer Night's Dream", that featured Colm Feore as Oberon - omigod, 15 years ago!

And he has directed and been in several other productions I have liked.

This musical is vaguely based on the fact that Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis are cousins (though why Mickey Gilley deos not get mentioned here as well has always baffled me).

But reality has not a lot to do with the show, which does a nice job of pointing out that televangelists and rock and rollers arise from similar traditions and are both working in entertainment traditions. The show up to the intermission does a nice job of building this analogy, and the last number before the intermission really grabbed me - a great illustration of the point. Rick Roberts and Ted Dykstra were just excellent and the energy was high. Roberts captured the intonations and rhythms of the Sunday morning evangelists I used to find it amusing to watch on television. Dykstra, perhaps only the second best pianist in his neighbourhood, recaptures nicely the crazy flavour that Jerry Lee Lewis brought to a performance. Kudos as well to Nicole Underhay as Molly, who unites these two figures.

But when the lights went down after intermission, all life pretty much left the show for me - the air went out of the balloon as the play become a political tract, and the presentation of Evangelical Fundamentalists, which I thought walked treacherously close to possibly justified stereotypes before intermission, decided to wander right in and lose all possible subtlety. What had been an energetic story of two conflicting brothers became utterly cliched, a path to come to having the wild brother ask for forgiveness from the other, and produce a pathetically lame finish, involving the strange notion that the paean to love in Corinthians is somehow typical of the whole New Testament.

We could have left at intermission and missed nothing we really wanted to see in the end.

And this has crossed my mind - I knew really nothing of this show before we went today, and today, reading the program in the intermission, I realized who David Young, the author of the book, was. He had created "Inexpressible Island", a play I dragged a party of friends to, and all of us fell asleep during the show. This featured R. H. Thomson, so you can imagine how tedious we must have found it - he is one of our finer actors.

Even worse - he wrote 'Clout', which Rondi and I left at intermission, despite a cast featuring R. H. Thomson, Eric Peterson, and Waneta Storms! I think this is the only theatrical production I have ever left at intermission. It was just silly, in my view.

So in the end I was not surprised to find that this was in the end only half a play worth watching.

I notice Martin Bragg has sworn off musicals for next year's season, but the only play I feel half interested in at the moment is the Peter Morgan (who wrote 'The Queen') offering. And I wonder even about that.

J. Kelly Nestruck has a very comprehensive roundup of responses to the show. I would also recommend that once you go over there, you read the last couple of weeks of postings he has on Toronto theatre - he has great insights.

By the way, today's matinee audience delivered a standing ovation (SillyWife and I did not stand), though in fairness to the audience, the standing started when the three principals appeared on stage, and they were spectacular even doing things I did not want them doing after intermission.

Fortunately, the cast did not then break into further song, as occurred at Soulpepper's "As You Like It" the night before, and this without anyone in the audience standing. We had already suffered the epilog that Shakespeare was so cute about, and now we have to stay seated and listen to the play go on even more?! And I liked that production - but this is just a stupid affectation. Perhaps another post.


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