By Tyrone Savage
Music and Lyrics by James Smith
Produced by Kabin and The Storefront Theatre at Soulpepper
November 12-December 1, 2016
There is much to like and be amused by in this musical adaptation of an old French Canadian legend—a folktale that adds a twist to the Faust tale and a few more twists to French-Canadian history. Set in a rough-hewn tavern where drinks, music, and dancing are very much part of the fun, the tale is about four female lumberjacks and runners of the wood who are exhausted, starving, and lonely in their camp on New Year’s Eve, and wishing dearly to be reunited with their beloveds in Old Montreal, some seventy leagues away. When roguish Damien appears in their midst dressed as a monk and offers to use rough magic to transport them in a magical flying canoe (chasse-galerie), under three strict conditions, the women rush to accept. They do not know, of course, that he is a devil incarnate, and that his conditions are possibly too much for them to meet for they are required to refrain from searing or uttering the Lord’s name, and must not touch crosses or any objects connected to God. The four young women are roughly charming and roughly ignorant of the perverse ways of Damien (Tyrone Savage), a charming devil, and of Lucy Ferr (Ghazal Azarbad), his partner, a wicked parody of satanic evil. Alex (Tess Benger) is clearly the youngest and most innocent of the female quartet, her mind and heart bound to Baby Jesus, when they aren’t dwelling on her lesbian lover Jaune (Alicia Toner), while Michelle (Kat Lewin) is the least innocent, with her hard drinking, rowdy profane humour, and candid sexual yearning for her Michel-Paul (Michael Cox). In between them are bespectacled Lea (Nicole Power) and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird), both yearning for love, though in quite different ways. The actresses who play them range from the most effective in characterization (Benger) to the least persuasive (Power), though Power has the finest singing voice of the female quartet.
I did not see the musical when it debuted a year ago, but the trouble is that this re-incarnation is a case of too much self-love—so much so that it doesn’t recognize its own limitations and self-indulgences. Whimsy can go far but even then, it has limits, no matter how charmingly whimsical the visual projections that accompany the fantasy of a flying canoe. Savage’s adaptation has teasing references to the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, but doesn’t make very much of them. Indeed, his libretto is a hectic of facile parody, no more so than in the case of Damien, played by Hunter Cardinal as an intriguing cowboy invert of the Archangel, though with an indecipherable accent.
James Smith’s rollicking music is well presented by Justin Han on drums and Jason O’Brien on bass, assisted by Benger on cello, Power on piano, Toner on fiddle, and his lyrics are charmingly rhymed for the most part, but apart from a drinking song and the blasphemous audience-singalong “Esti tabernak, tabernak , esti, esti tabernak vierge!” too many of the numbers lack a distinct Quebecois sound and style, and, to be brutally honest, they don’t get the best vocalizations. Savage seems to be in love with his own suave performance as Uriel, but his singing voice is not of the finest quality; in fact, it is quite flat or pitchy at times. And the dance numbers, though infectiously energetic, don’t get far beyond a repetitiveness in Ashleigh Powell’s choreography. Moreover, the story goes on far too long and wouldn’t have lost very much if condensed to just over an hour’s playing time. Two and a half hours of stage musical time are far more than I could bear for a tavern musical, however admirable and ebullient the effort at an indigenous concoction.