Wednesday, July 25, 2012

WANDERLUST—poetic, clever, magical

The musical CATS was a compilation of the poetry of T. S. Eliot. The material was very loosely held together with a thin plot line. The musical score was invented to fit the poetry. Though CATS is one of the longest running plays in Broadway history, many find it nothing but a musical review with gimmicks.

In WANDERLUST, Morris Panych (book) and Marek Norman (music) accomplished something that Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t do in CATS. The duo blended the poetry of Robert Service into a seamless story line, much like the music of ABBA entwined in MAMMA MIA!

WANDERLUST, a Festival commissioned musical play, is in its world premiere at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Not familiar with the folksy poem stories of Service? His name is not as well known as Eliot, or Robert Frost, or e. e. Cummings, but his poetry may well be. A review of some of WANDERLUST’s song titles may awaken the awareness: The Men That Don’t Fit In, The Ordinary Man, The Land Beyond, and Unforgotten. Still not aware of the author? Let’s try, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. Oh, yes, that’s Robert Service.

Set in Victoria, British Columbia, at the beginning of the 20th century, WANDERLUST imagines a story based on the life of Service, who was referred to as the “Bard of the Yukon.” We follow as a bank clerk dreams about romance and escape, to a life of adventure in the gold rush of the Great Canadian North. But his lady love is engaged to another man, his plans are more poetic illusion than actuality, and his dreams are unfulfilled. He is a dreamer whose inner most thoughts and desires are that of a poet, not a realist.

The script is filled with clever lines, much humor, and creative illusions. While not a bioplay, it shows Service, himself, as eccentric, a shaper of illusions and stories, and an envisioner of places he had never visited. He fills the head of the listener with wonder and imagery.

The production, under the astute direction of Morris Panych, like Service’s poetry, is filled with creative illusions. Bank clerks become sled dogs, ledgers become swinging bar doors, and space becomes snow storms. The action is well paced, the humor finely keyed, the characterizations clearly etched.

Tom Rooney is compelling as Service. He is so believable that Rooney becomes Service. He does not portray Service, he is Service. Randy Hughson is delightful as the owner of the bank. Ken James Stewart makes for the perfect foil as Noah, the young bank employee who is the brunt of jokes and dismissal. Robin Hutton is convincing as the conniving Louise, Service’s infatuation. Dan Chameroy is believable as Louise’s nasty fiancĂ©e and Lucy Peacock is wonderful as Mrs. Munsch, Service’s landlady. Her drunken “a world of men” speech is a production highlights.

The staging of The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee are mesmerizing and enjoyable.

Diana Coatsworth’s choreography, Marek Norman’s musical direction, Ken MacDonald’s creative sets, and Alan Brodie’s lighting effects, all add greatly to the joy of the production.

Capsule judgement: WANDERLUST, receiving its world premiere in the Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, is a totally enjoyable experience. It is a creative production that examines the poetry of a dreamer with humor and music.