Russ Hunt's Reviews

Plastic: The Musical
by Tania Breen, Tony LePage, and Leigh Rivenbark

NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
August 3-5, 2003

Two years ago at the NBActs festival we saw a bare-bones presentation of a musical idea -- a testing out of an early version of a show in development. The premise of Plastic: The Musical was that in a world where everything is fake and artificial, where superficial images are worshipped and realities ignored, where, in the word of one recurring song, "It's a plastic world we live in, where nothing is what it seems, full of plastic people dreaming plastic dreams," someone might be driven to exchange her real self for a synthetic image. In the show, then as now, we follow Amy, a self-described "ordinary woman" trying to make a living as an actress and repeatedly failing to get a part, trying to make human connections (object: matrimony) and repeatedly failing at that, too, and finally deciding to listen to the voices around her and undergo extensive plastic surgery to become what the world has told her since childhood she should want to become: the most beautiful woman in the world.

And of course what happens, as any reader of fairy tales would instantly know, is that she gets her wish and it's not what she had in mind. Along the road to her disastrous recognition, we encounter her sister (already beautiful, and already a cautionary example of the emptiness of a life based on appearances); we meet the conflicted plastic surgeon who can defend his profession plausibly and persuasively even though he's not entirely managed to convince himself; we meet poor shy Leonard at his computer keyboard, afraid of the world and unable to deal with it. And there's someone identified only as "TV Guy," one of the most marvelously repellent characters I've encountered in a musical, a glittering, magnetic shill, selling plastic surgery and empty celebrity with the same oily exuberance.

At the time I said that I hoped that we'd get to see the rest of it, and that it would be performed by a cast as talented as that one. This year, we saw what can happen with two years of revision and thinking by talented and committed people, and with a decision to go for a complete production (well, as complete as fits into the Black Box). What can happen is that yes, the potential is realized, and that yes, the cast is at least as talented -- because the four principals are the same people -- and that, yes, the concept still has some growing to do.

The first thing to be said about the show in its new form is that -- in spite of the fact that Rivenbark still introduces it as a "workshop" -- it is in most ways blow-you-away professional. The music, the lighting, the singing, the movement, the direction and flow, the sound projections, even the costumes are unhesitatingly and firmly solid. The audience never has to hope that a note will be nailed (they all are), that a prop will appear when we need it and disappear when we don't (they all do); we never have to pretend a lighting cue was not missed or guess that a bit of costume is what could be found among the leftovers of other shows; we never need to worry, that is about whether anything's intentional. It is.

And the promise of the show itself, as we heard it two years ago, is, for the most part, borne out. I said then that 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. It is perhaps clearer this time that many of the songs (all of which, apparently, have been at least modified, and some radically rewritten) are near-parodies of various styles of current pop music, and that the vocal tricks of the principals are the kinds of devices that the kids on the American and Canadian Idol shows seem invariably to aspire to -- but done with a confident skill that the kids would only hope to emulate.

And the characters are clearly drawn and brilliantly performed. Tania Breen, as Fredericton audiences have come to expect, is astonishingly convincing as Amy, and then as her redesigned incarnation, Naomi. We even manage to forget -- most of the time -- that though Amy is described as overweight and unattractive, Breen is emphatically neither. It's tempting to wonder how, in a production with more resources, one might handle the problem: as it stands, it's very difficult to imagine Breen as overweight, and when the plastic surgeon, sizing her up, suggests liposuction on her hips, suspension of disbelief is strained almost to the breaking point. She's equally convincing -- and perhaps somewhat more typecast -- as the post-plastic surgery superstar Naomi. And as always, her ability to bring a lyric to dramatic life is remarkable, as is her power in broadcasting an emotion. In an early number, we see her auditioning for a series of roles, and the way her face crumples into disappointment at the cry of "Next!" is heartbreaking.

And there's the remarkable Tony LePage as both the conflicted surgeon and the TV Guy. We're not always sure quite how to keep them separate. One minute the TV Guy is shilling for plastic surgery ("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, as the soulful and sincere plastic surgeon LePage begins singing about the ordinary woman who wants him to make her beautiful and yet "I wouldn't change a thing." It's almost as though the characters themselves were morphing into each other. As with the Amy/Naomi confound, it's an open question what a fully fleshed-out production would do: if different actors played the characters, perhaps some clarity would be gained, but on the other hand, some interesting theatrical ambiguity would be lost. If LePage is more convincing as the confident, repellent showman slickly peddling image, it's still true that he's able to let us in on the surgeon's own doubts. As persuasive as he is ("we're hard-wired to admire beauty; it's in our DNA"), we understand exactly why Amy stalks out on his superficial patter, and why her contempt for it attracts him. And perhaps even why, in the end, she buys into the plastic dream. As she changes her mind, she tells him about the lovers she sees in the park, talking quietly: "I want to know what they're saying," she says.

The other two principals are the amazingly vivacious Natalie Roy as Bronwyn, Amy/Naomi's lovely duckling sister, a hapless but beautiful aspiring journalist reduced to being a weather girl, at one point told contemptuously by her boss to "do what you do best: smile and stick out your tits," and Sean Henry as the lonely computer geek venturing tentatively out into the world of online "love." All four, 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, and if all are encouraged to indulge in some of the more identifiable clichés of musical theatre and pop singing, it's easy to see why. It's all about the plastic, after all.

Supported by a musically spot-on (and a physically disciplined and skilled) chorus, many of whom step in at appropriate points in minor roles, and some powerful musical backing created by Rivenbark on piano and the astonishing Mike Doherty on pretty well everything else you can imagine being created from one electronic control center, the music, especially in the first half of the show, generates powerful momentum and excitement. All this is strongly supported by a range of overhead projections -- from multiscreen parodies of TV infomercials to replicas of chatroom conversation screens -- imaginatively assembled by Seann Murray. Lighting is perfectly timed; the set is elegantly simple. I especially liked the range of uses for the transparent plastic curtains that backed everything, and the efficient and unobtrusive way props were moved on and off. And the recurrent image of rain is evoked powerfully, both visually and through the sound system (this is important, connected with the show's central event, the visitation of Hurricane Juan on Halifax, coinciding with Amy's surgery and subsequent "death," and leaving, as the weather reporter says, "the face of Halifax changed forever."

Still, there are, of course, problems. The first act seems slow to get to the story, partly because there's so much rich music and satire the writers need to get through: the second act includes scenes which seem long or could be cut altogether, which feel included to extend roles or merely as character exposition. The implausible first airplane flight, as Bronwyn and Leonard wend their way to Los Angeles to find out what's happened to Amy, invites us to strain to believe that a flight from Halifax to Los Angeles would be direct, in order to have Leonard be terrified on a first airplane flight of seven hours -- when in fact it's not clear why we need to see the flight at all. While it does offer us some information about Leonard's fears, surely we don't need all this effort for that. In contrast, we don't really get enough of the interaction between Amy and Kenneth, the surgeon, to make us feel the spark of connection that keeps them together to nearly the end. The plot is rife with implausibilities. I wondered, for example, why Bronwyn's threat to expose Naomi was taken so seriously: surely, I thought, in a society where everything's plastic and synthetic, the fact that she's even more plastic and synthetic than the other current idols the show invokes would have been something to flaunt.

One might argue, too, that the subject of the satire wears a bit thin by the second act: it's not news that a superficial, appearance-obsessed plastic life is a poor substitute for human and natural contact, so when, yet again, the doctor sings over the recumbent Naomi, "come home, we're losing touch, this plastic world is just too much," we're prepared to wonder just when he came to this realization. An opportunity to deepen the range of the satire seems lost when so little is made of the fact that Naomi finds herself pregnant. While this is the event which finally solves the plot's main problem, the contrast between the brute fact of that foetus and the synthetic plasticity of everything else Naomi is and wants isn't drawn nearly as powerfully as I think it might be. The problem with the fantasy of a plastic world where nothing is what it seems isn't simply that it's superficial and satirizable: it's that at some point it takes the risk of running aground on some ineluctable reality.

Still, as an evening in the theatre this is as engaging as anything we've seen in Fredericton in some time: if the touring production of Jonathan Larson's Rent, for example, which zipped through the Playhouse last fall, was a bigger and more professionally ambitious show, it was certainly no more engrossing or enjoyable. I hope Rivenbark, Breen, LePage & co. continue to develop this show, and that we get still another chance to admire its progress.

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