Review: Driven to Score: Celebrating Canadian Musical Composers (Theatre 20)

Theatre 20 is “an artist-led, story-driven company” devoted to the development of new Canadian musical theatre works. Their Driven to Score: Celebrating Canadian Musical Composers concert promised to be a music-filled evening showcasing some of the biggest and best names in the Canadian theatre scene.

Directed by Alisa Palmer, one of our best directors, and hosted by Ann-Marie MacDonald, one of our greatest playwrights and performers, the showcase offered a veritable who’s-who of Canadian theatre. The roster of big-name performers was led by Adam Brazier (We Will Rock You), Theatre 20’s Artistic Director, and Bob Foster (currently working on Billy Elliot), the show’s Musical Director. Other founding members who performed included Ma-Anne Dionisio (Miss Saigon) and Louise Pitre (Mamma Mia!).

The lineup offered works by some of the most treasured working Canadian musical theatre composers –  Leslie Arden, Jonathan Monro, and David Warrack – and also opened them up to conversation. The opening number, “Don’t Expect Too Much” by Arden, with classic Canadian humility, set the tone for what felt like a rather underwhelming evening. Ironic considering the concert was given the hyperbolic (and hockey themed?) title “Driven to Score.”

The first half was spent mostly watching MacDonald chit-chat with the three composers. While all four are clearly self-assured and comfortable on the stage, this banter seemed surprisingly forced. MacDonald would ask, “So what was your a-ha moment?” to which an awkward, self-dubbed “Gay-Newfie-half-Jew” Monro would reply, “I didn’t really have one… ummm…” and then MacDonald would say something like: “and now it’s time for another song… this one’s about a pirate…”

Perhaps it was just a perfect microcosm of the interaction within the Canadian theatre scene, and the way Canadians converse, as my very Canadian show-partner Ryan noted; but considering the mandate and goals of Theatre 20, this was a missed, perfect opportunity for more biting commentary and discussion on the state of our theatre and the Canadian condition, rather than a big love-fest that made me as an audience member feel left out.  Theatre 20’s mission is: “to create a unique voice for modern musical theatre,” among other things, and I wish this sort of discourse had directed more of MacDonald’s conversation.

In a sense the show delivered on what it promised: the best of Canadian theatre. Starting at $59 a head, the price of admission alone sets one up with pretty high expectations. Yet from the get-go, the organization seemed to be awry: the house didn’t even open until ten after, and the sound was riddled with pops and sizzles. Even the acoustics in the Panasonic Theatre left much to be desired, particularly during the final acoustic number, where the powers and prowess of some performers really separated the professionals from the amateurs.

All the songs were performed from the sheet music, on stands before the performers, with a couple of exceptions, and it shames me to have to say that some numbers didn’t even seem rehearsed. Maybe they really didn’t have the means for sufficient rehearsal but when you put together a line-up like this, with a production team one can only dream of, the bar is pretty blatantly set quite high.

This is why that opening number so surprised me.

Despite some setbacks, there was a definite shining star in Monro who shone over the entire evening. His performance with a supposedly unrehearsed, voluntary page-turner Michael Therriault (stepping out of the audience) of Monroe’s hilarious “Page Turner’s Waltz” was met with uproarious laughter and applause. Their combined talents made for one of the more memorable moments of the evening. Monro followed that doozy up with an even more riotous “Rumba Raylene” playing the lazy-sssss dropping heroine of the title opposite Brazier.

As someone who knew next to nothing about these composers going in, I did seek exposure to what promised to be the best Canada has to offer. I left with the name Monro on my lips. While there were some good tunes in the samplings from Arden and Warrack’s repertoires, to me their American influences were all-too apparent, as even Arden admitted when she speaks of Sondheim as a “mentor” in nearly the same breath as the fact that she took piano for two years before becoming a “composer.” Also, something tells me they didn’t actually choose the best of their respective repertoires. Maybe I’m just an optimist.

Theatre 20 now stands centre stage at the forefront of a great future for Canadian musicals, and we all have tremendously high hopes. If I consider this concert-evening as it came off,  only meant to be a more casual kind of showcase, they may want to reconsider what they charge and how they market themselves. And if they want to start new trends in Canadian musical theatre, maybe open their doors a little wider beyond the theatre community itself, and present more polished presentations of the incredible work Canadians have to offer.  That being said, if it was meant to be more casual, why hire Alisa Palmer and Ann–Marie MacDonald? This may have been the perfect opportunity to give more under-established artists a forum for collaboration, as their mission also indicates their goal to “become active participants in the arts community through outreach, education, and mentorship.”

Their very reason for being is to help introduce the theatre-going public to more original Canadian theatre, yet, as I mentioned, there was a fair number of theatre-folk comprising the audience too. Considering all the familiar faces in the audience, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the audience was there on complimentary tickets. Yet this would have been the perfect time to get more people unfamiliar with this stuff into the theatre, and perhaps build a more directed dialogue at the future of our theatre, targeting those who know next-to-nothing about it, aside from Dirty Dancing and Mamma Mia!

The next in their series of three concerts will be held on October 3: “an in-concert version of a new Canadian musical by John Gray (Billy Bishop Goes to War).” Tickets can be purchased through Ticketking. You can also see Soulpepper’s  version of Billy Bishop Goes to War onstage until August.

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