by Tania Breen, Tony LePage, and Leigh Rivenbark
Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival
July 29-August 2, 2003
The production values of the workshop we saw -- problems, for instance, with Leigh Rivenbark's keyboard being too loud for some of the songs, or the brilliance of some of the short-scene acting (especially between Tania Breen as an "ordinary woman" and Tony LePage as the plastic surgeon she consults in a desperate attempt to change her life by becoming beautiful) -- seem almost beside the point, since the performance was billed as an introduction to the concept and the songs. So, too, the wonderful ease with which all four actor/singers switched convincingly between roles -- often from one sentence to the next -- seems not quite what the evening was about.
But in fact it wasn't, for the audience in the Black Box, at all beside the point. For an hour we found ourselves mesmerized by a kind of theatre we don't often see: musical theatre almost entirely stripped of its trappings. Though in his narration Rivenbark told us to visualize actions, back projections, magical moments of visual beauty, they weren't, of course, actually there, and everything depended on the music, the lines, and the actors.
All of which stand up remarkably. Though there is perhaps a touch too much insistence on the musical phrase that is the show's leitmotiv -- "who's that girl . . . " -- it never becomes excessive, and though there isn't a song that you come out of the theatre humming, there are none that aren't interesting, engaging, and sometimes lovely melodies and often extraordinarily clever lyrics. Using an absolute minimum of physicality (turning to face each other, moving from music stand to music stand, standing up to come forward, and occasionally miming actions) the actors bring us inside the lives of a range of characters. There's Breen, astonishingly convincing as the "ordinary woman" aspiring to act and failing to get the part. There's the lonely policeman (Shawn Henry, in a spectacularly physical performance) failing his "robbery simulation" and desperate to meet a woman in a chatroom. There's the hapless but beautiful weather girl (Natalie Roy), told contemptuously by her boss to "do what you do best: smile and stick out your tits." And there's the remarkable Tony LePage as everything -- including a simpering, pouting supermodel and the powerfully slimy TV salesman pushing beauty ("just a little blood, just a little bone," he sings, somehow reminding us of the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors -- and, a second later, the soulful and sincere plastic surgeon, singing about the ordinary woman who wants him to make her beautiful and yet "I wouldn't change a thing." All the singers, but especially (as most Fredericton theatregoers expect) Breen and LePage, can inhabit a song and make it live, and the songs we hear are eminently habitable.
There are brilliant bits -- one that comes to mind is the scene from Casablanca, played by Roy and LePage as Bergman and Bogart, while Breen and Henry, as the lonely folks back in their separate rooms watching the film on TV, lip-sync the lines right along with the characters. But, more important, the bits fit together into what we can see is a fully imagined whole.
We only saw the first act, and only an outline of that. Let's hope the rest is at least half as good, and that we get to see it all one of these days soon. In a festival celebrating the creative energy of playwrights, this workshop was as powerful a demonstration as we're likely to see of how that energy can transform four music stands and a keyboard into a world.