Wednesday, August 6, 2008

ANYTHING THAT MOVES Review August 6th 2008

Photos, from top: Scott Walker, Michelle E. White, Christian Goutsis, Marie Baron, Tracy Michailidis and Neil Maffin / Photo by David Cooper Photography 2008; Christian Goutsis and Tracy Michailidis / Photo by David Cooper Photography 2008; Poster []. Tickets at 250-385-6815.

1. This summer musical at the Belfry arrives with high expectations; co-written by novelist, playwright and actor Ann-Marie MacDonald (with her real-life partner director Alisa Palmer) and winner of Toronto's 2002 Dora award for Best Musical. What was your take on the show?

Well, although I think the show will do well at the Belfry (as almost everything they produce does well, they have a large and loyal audience in Victoria) I have to admit my feelings were mixed about this show. There is a lot of appealing cleverness in it, witty dialogue, engaging characters and even a couple of good songs. But for me, the whole doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. This chamber musical for six actors tells the story of Joel and Jinny, two young people close to turning thirty and looking for 'real love'. Joel's best friend Tyrone is gay and unrepentantly into almost-anonymous and plentiful sex. Another friend, Alberta, is also gay but married to her partner and wishing for motherhood. They support Joel in his hopes for a relationship with Jinny, who wanders into his flower shop one day and immediately becomes his 'One True Love'. The catch? She thinks he's Tyrone's lover and only bonds with him as a safe gay friend. The rest of the show is about Joel plucking up the courage to tell her the truth as everything around him falls apart and he risks losing Jinny to her own bad patterns, issues with her recovering alcoholic mother and inability to see a good thing when it shows last. Of course, this being a musical, we can be confident that everything will come right in the end, and it does, but along the way--especially in Act Two---we get sidetracked by secondary characters like the gay friends and the mother (and even Joel's long lost and distant father) who threaten to overwhelm the simple and affecting love story at the heart of this musical.

2. Does this happen, in your opinion, because the two leading roles aren't quite up to the challenges of their characters?

Not at all. Director Michael Shamata says quite rightly in his program notes that casting is 90% of a director's job and he has cast the show well with Christian Goutsis and Tracy Michailidis as Joel and Jinny. They are both strong young performers with good voices and we want them to get together. Now if only we could get the other four characters offstage and out of their way! This is the reason why a show that could move along at a good clip and come in under two hours, including intermission, clocks in at over 2 and a half hours. Most of this problem lies in Act Two, which gives us a dinner scene that takes off in all directions at once, including a showstopping number about the power of the menopausal woman, that literally moves the protagonists to the sidelines as we watch their parents and friends sort through their own issues over expensive bottles of wine. Shamata also mentions in his notes that this is the first production of this musical since its first full production at Toronto’s Tarragon 2001. For me, that sets off more warning bells than celebratory cheers.

3. And how do the supporting players, who seem to be taking over the show, manage in their roles?

All of them have their moments. I really like Neil Maffin's work with Tyrone...he makes a gay cliché seem quite real and has some very funny moments. Marie Baron gives us a more complex mother than her own daughter knows and grows into the role in Act Two. Michelle White plays Alberta with lots of bravado, but I wasn't quite convinced of her pain at being dumped by her wife in Act Two. And Scott Walker as Joel's absent father has the toughest job of all. He appears at the very end of Act One, but we don't really hear much from him until quite late in the show, so he's an uneasy presence for us. Why is he even there if his son is so much out of his life? What is his purpose? This remains unclear. Shamata seems a very capable hand at keeping everything moving along, and there are scenes with real heart and flare--especially in Act One which works quite well--but he cannot save a sinking bottom-heavy script, which is what I feel prevents Anything that Moves from being the show it might be.

4. What about the music and design of the show?

The musical direction by Steve Thomas is very accomplished, although the music itself, by Allen Cole, does not make much of a memorable mark. The company sings well and the couple of numbers with a bit of choreography are effective. The design, by very well-known Canadian stage designer John Ferguson, was a disappointment. We are given one playing level, a stark metallic frame with glass windows and doors that doesn't add to the action or theme. Everything with color or visual interest in the show is rolled on and off by the actors, or is worn as a costume. I don't understand the set, although I think it could have worked if the huge empty glass spaces inside it had been occupied at key moments with either action or symbolic objects; the one time it is used as Jinny's closet it works well, but this only happens the once.

5. So all in all, a mixed response to this show?

Yes, and it's too bad. Like many, I love MacDonald's writing and have even produced and performed in her earlier play The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls with my theatre company WAVE Theatre. She writes terrific dialogue, creates interesting characters and strong narratives, but this show gets ahead of itself and becomes confused about what it is trying to be. When an audience becomes distracted from the heart of the musical story 'Boy Meets Girl' to the extent that we are in this show, it becomes harder to care when 'Boy Wins Girl' in the final moments. That was unfortunately my experience with this problematic piece by one of Canada’s most talented writers.

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