TheatreSpeak is Making Musical Magic

ann doyle, kyle gillis, andrew chandler & kirstin howell (from the original theatrespeak production)

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. As part of Jeremy Webb’s Off the Leash Presents initiative, TheatreSpeak’s production of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen’s [title of show], which ran last April in Halifax, has been remounted for two nights only at the Neptune Studio Theatre closing on Friday November 16th, 2012.

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.

This current production of [title of show] is a tighter and more finely tuned and polished production than the one I saw seven months ago at the North Street Church and suggests really exciting things to come from TheatreSpeak and the emergence of an independent musical theatre tradition in Halifax. Kyle Gillis gives an endearing and grounded performance as Hunter, an ambitious writer/actor who is also prone to procastibation. Gillis throws himself wholeheartedly into all of [title of show]’s hilariously ridiculous theatrical scenarios, including a powerhouse performance as a potty mouth, gangsta blank notebook. Anders Balderston is the gentler, more introspective composer/actor Jeff and his comic timing is impeccable throughout. The relationships between Jeff and Hunter, as well as between Jeff and the girls, Heidi and Susan, is so natural here one really believes that she is watching the development of a musical where four people are playing themselves.

The tension between Kirstin Howell and Ann Doyle as Heidi and Susan respectively is beautifully meta-theatrical in this production, as both grow increasingly hilarious throughout the 90 minute show in sly competition with one another. Howell’s Heidi, an actor who has made it to Broadway (several times) as a swing/understudy/ensemble/dance captain/assistant stage manager, has really come into her own in this remount with Howell making continually bold choices and maximizing every potential for laughter. This provides an even more interesting counter for Doyle’s “corporate whore” Susan, who continually cuts through Howell’s antics with biting, sardonic wit laced with just enough insecurity to make Susan a delightful mixture of hilarious and sympathetic. There were a few moments where I felt that Doyle had the leeway to go even bigger, as she and Howell had the audience in the palms of their hands. I think if they were allowed a longer run, there would be even more potential for these two dynamic ladies to play even more with their relationship with one another and with the audience.

Choreographer Mary Lou Martin gives [title of show] some terrific and fun dance numbers that pastiche the genre beautifully. Howell’s tap number still had me grinning like a six year old in a candy store on Easter morning. The one number that was not quite clear enough was “Monkeys and Playbills,” which I think would have found a clearer rhythm and punch given a longer run and time to settle. Rhys Bevan-John directs the show and adds some of his own beautiful, subtle touches, mostly focused around brisk mimed interludes. These give this production a very distinct individuality and sophistication in their detail, and also adds nicely to the show’s playfulness and its comedy. 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 beautiful and each of the four have their own lovely singing voices. The recorded bits of the show could be a little clearer and with crisper diction as they are the only moments where the characters seem to mumble, but I think that may be more the quality of the recording than the performance of the actors.

In all [title of show] is an exciting musical from TheatreSpeak, and encapsulates exactly what a remount of a show should be: a tighter and even more thoroughly fleshed out version of the original. If TheatreSpeak keeps producing musical theatre of this caliber in Halifax, it is well on its way to being the Nova Scotian equivalent of Toronto’s Acting Up Stage and what a glorious prospect and a wonderful feat that is!

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