[title of review]

andrew chandler, ann doyle, kyle gillis & kirstin howell

Within the theatre community it has often been lamented that in recent years musical theatre in Halifax has largely been reserved only for large budget Neptune Theatre shows with most, if not all, the leading roles going to performers brought in from Toronto or elsewhere in the country. TheatreSpeak, a relatively new Halifax-based theatre company, seeks to spice up this trend by offering professional caliber musical theatre shows featuring casts and artistic teams made up entirely of local artists. Their first production of this kind is Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen’s [title of show] which plays through the weekend at the North Street Church.

A fanboy’s nerdy love poem to Broadway, [title of show] chronicles its own creation following book writer Hunter Bell and composer Jeff Bowen’s journey as they attempt to write an original musical to submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Their scrappy, hilarious and endearing little show about two guys trying to write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical premiered at the Festival in 2004, went on the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway in 2006 and opened on Broadway in 2008 and ran there for a respectable 102 performances.

Amid a lot of intentionally obscure musical theatre references and industry jokes, the core of [title of show] is a fairytale in which two idealistic dreamers follow their hearts on an exciting adventure toward being able to fulfill their lofty goals without sacrificing too much of themselves in the process. Jeff Bowen’s music is really the show’s most delightful asset, from the extreme cleverness of “Die Vampire, Die,” a song about insecurities, to “A Way Back To Then” a tearjerker anthem of childhood dreams, the score is catchy, the lyrics are intricately woven together and each song makes celebrating the joy of the arts utterly irresistible.

In many ways this is a perfect first musical for TheatreSpeak to do because the grassroots beginnings of Hunter and Jeff’s little show that could mirrors the experience of doing theatre in a small city center like Halifax (Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway, if you will). Yet, [title of show], like any good fairytale, renews our hope and our faith in humble beginnings, proving undeniably that with a lot of perseverance, talent, creativity, pluck and a sincere dedication to the art of it, anything in this crazy business called show is possible. And, what a wonderful thing.

TheatreSpeak’s production features Kyle Gillis as Hunter, Andrew Chandler as Jeff, Kirstin Howell as Heidi and Ann Doyle as Susan. The four of them have a beautiful blend when singing together and a nice chemistry as an ensemble cast. Gillis is especially terrific in capturing Hunter’s hungry, and sometimes desperate, passion to make it big on Broadway, despite the fact that he’s a chronic procrasibator. Chandler has a naive charm that makes Jeff, who is more protective of his dreams and his heart than the others, the most endearing underdog of them all, rooting the audience firmly by his side for the entirety of the show. A lot of the tension in [title of show] is hinged on Hunter and Jeff’s friendship. Can it survive the stress and clash of egos so often involved in great success? I would have liked to see a bit more of this darker underbelly of snarky, anal power struggles in Chandler and Gillis, who were both the nicest guys on the planet for all 90 minutes.

The dynamic between Kirstin Howell’s Heidi and Ann Doyle’s Susan is brilliantly funny but I also really like how we watch their friendship bloom from two skeptical girls both vying to be the star, who bring out all the insecure in each other, to revelling in the fact that, indeed, to borrow again from Into the Woods, sometimes “it takes two” to make a really powerhouse performance like their duet “Secondary Characters.” Howell’s Heidi, an actor who has made it to Broadway (several times) as a swing/understudy/ensemble/dance captain/assistant stage manager, has a distinctive professionalism about her, strength of character and smarts which makes her a worthy counterpart for “corporate whore” Susan, who Doyle gives a great gusto of power, wit with just the right amount of bitterness, and a facade of confidence one vampire away from completely crumbling. I hope to see much more of Howell and Doyle working together in the future; they are a dynamic duo.

Choreographer Mary Lou Martin gives [title of show] some terrific dance numbers, particularly “Die Vampire, Die” and “Secondary Characters” as well as Howell’s tap number (which I wish was a little longer). They all had me grinning like a six year old in a candy store on Easter morning. Rhys Bevan-John directs the show, keeping the pace brisk, the comic timing steady and transitions smooth between the scenes and the songs. Alvaro Ortiz plays Larry the Musical Director, giving Larry a nice awkwardness stowed away at the back of the stage behind the piano, but sometimes dragged into the action (although not enough to warrant being in the publicity photos). The harmonies in the show are tight and the casts’ diction when singing is superb, although oddly, they do have a habit of throwing some of their spoken lines away, which makes them difficult to hear at times.

In all [title of show] is an exciting first musical from TheatreSpeak and one that looks promisingly toward the future of Halifax-based musical theatre in this city.

               [title of show] plays at the North Street Church (5657 North Street, Halifax) until Sunday April 29th, 2012, with shows at 2pm and 8pm today and tomorrow. For more information or to book your tickets please email theatrespeak@gmail.com, call 902.425.4102. Blink and you miss it, and if you do, you will probably be sad!  

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