Joyful Noise gives Handel’s Messiah a humourous twist, on Toronto stages
George Frederick Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is considered one of the greatest and most frequently performed choral compositions of all time, most commonly recognized for its ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.
However, the backstory of its naissance was full of scandal, struggle and controversy. Naturally, it lends itself to a dramatic retelling in the theatre, in Tim Slover’s Joyful Noise, currently playing at the Papermill Theatre as part of the East Side Players’ 50th Anniversary Season.
Before composing the Messiah, German-born Handel (Thomas O’Neill)—living in London, England—was in debt. The Italian operas he was once known and loved for were no longer in fashion, and he had fallen out of favour with the church and King George II.
In parallel to his own misfortunes, Handel’s leading soprano Susannah Cibber (Pearl Ho) had been forced into retirement over a sex scandal and was facing a nasty reception from those believing that such a woman should never show her face in public again, let alone sing sacred music. All of this, and with a meddling bishop, rivaling singers, and a pompous librettist, the Messiah almost never came to be.
Despite the dramatic real-life story, I watched Joyful Noise wondering why the play is classed as a ‘drama’, when Slover has written a comedy. And I question his choice to write the real-life characters as such absurd caricatures, with needless jokes and stereotypical dialogue. Aside from anything else, the occasionally aggressive comedy does not compliment the delicate music, nor the seriousness of the plot.
But that is not to find fault with the actors. The cast was dynamic and very engaging and I enjoyed their performances. Thomas O’Neill’s Handel was big and brash, spirited and playful, and very fun to watch. However, it wasn’t long before I was wondering if Handel was really quite as amusing as he had been written. I then found it hard to take him seriously when things were not aligning for him, especially during a forced, heart-felt second-act moment between Handel and Cibber—played very sweetly by Pearl Ho—who offered the few moments of calm and tenderness.
The second act felt very heavy-handed with the humour piled on even thicker than the firs, with the climax having a feel of ‘Disney villain trying to stop the show’.
Having said that, the audience seemingly loved it, laughing heartily and exclaiming upon leaving how wonderful the show was. I would say that Joyful Noise, whilst maybe not my taste, takes what could be an intimidating character and subject and puts it into a format that you can understand as a consumable piece of theatre. The East Side Players then elevate it to highly entertaining and enjoyable. Or—rather—joyful.
- Joyful Noise is playing until Saturday 5th November at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills (67 Pottery Road)
- Shows are Friday 4th November and Saturday 5th November at 8pm
- Tickets are $24, or $17 for students and can can be bought online or by calling the box office at 416-425-0917
- $10 Student rush tickets are available at the door with a valid student ID
- Cash ONLY, no debit or credit
Photo of the cast provided by East Side Players