Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, members of the writing team behind some of the most-acclaimed musicals to come out of the Toronto Fringe in recent years (including Summerland and The Fence) bring the latest incarnation of Blood Ties, a darkly comedic musical the duo has been honing for several years, to the Next Stage Theatre Festival.
Keen-eyed observers may recall that the musical was featured as part of the storyline on season 2 of “Orphan Black,” the Toronto-based BBC America/Space cult hit science fiction thriller starring Tatiana Maslany. A musical about a bunch of friends tasked with cleaning up the bloody mess in a bathroom following a relative’s suicide on the eve of their friend’s wedding, Blood Ties is the kind of quirky dark comedy that has the potential to also achieve cult hit status some day but at this point I still think it needs some more work.
Johnson and Johnston are gifted songwriters who have an amazing sense of how to write for musical theatre. Their songs have a great musicality and their lyrics are witty; in their best moments in Blood Ties the duo channels Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The composers also know how to allow the more earnest moments to shine through even in the midst of all the off-kilter humour.
However, I think the weak link here is the script; the show’s book still needs some work. I thought the scenes between songs felt a bit stilted, unnatural and clunky with no real sense of flow. The humour felt tepid rather than outlandish and I definitely think the script needs some punching up to make it really pop.
I also thought the staging by director Ann Merriam was a little by-the-numbers and felt a bit like a student production. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it but there’s nothing particularly original about it either and I think a show like this would lend itself well to a more unconventional staging concept. The stylistic quirk of having the characters start the show in pure white costumes that gradually get more red as the show progresses is not really enough to make the staging interesting.
Also, for this kind of dark comedy to work you really have to set the right tone at the beginning and bring the right level of energy to the performances. In the absence of a solid book and staging concept even the writers don’t sell the material with a lot of conviction and I thought the opening night performances felt a bit tentative.
I truly believe Blood Ties has a lot of potential, there’s a really strong collection of songs at its core, I just think it needs a little more work to realize that potential.
- All Next Stage Theatre Festival performances are being held at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets for Mainstage and Studio shows are $15 and $10 for Ante-chamber performances
- Showtimes and ticket information are available at fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/
Photo of Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston by Tanja Tiziana