l-r: sabryn rock, john blackwood, jamie robinson, lisa codrington, jajube mandiela
el numero uno by pam mordecai, directed by ahdri zhina mandelia
on the mainstage beginning Jan. 31, 2010. photo: iden ford photography
El Numero Uno, the world premiere of a contemporary Caribbean fable by famed Jamaican author Pam Mordecai, playing at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People until February 25th, 2010, comes in and out with a terrific bang; unfortunately, the middle slogs along like a soupy undercooked pancake.
This is especially regrettable because there is much to admire in El Numero Uno. It is the story of a teenaged orphan pig named Uno who is learning to become a chef from the master, Chef Trenton. When their food supplies become targets for mysterious thieves, the Chef sends Uno on a mission to gather special ingredients for a magical recipe. Uno, however, becomes distracted, cocky and careless and accidentally damages all the ingredients, lies about it and eventually becomes kidnapped by some mysterious beasts. The lessons and values in this story are implicitly woven into the story without seeming too contrived and the plot lends itself easily to the intrigue of magic, a sense of danger, and the potential for vibrant, quirky, and loveable characters. The Caribbean origins of this story lend so much possibility for the flair of the Islands to ignite the entire production in extraordinary rhythm, music and flavour giving everything a bright burst of energy, vibrancy and fun.
One of the biggest obstacles in this production is Andrew Broderick’s portrayal of Uno. While by times his physicality was reminiscent of a lackadaisical twelve year old, he always sounded like an adult imitating a small child rather than truly inhabiting the vocal timbres and capturing the spirit and specific demeanour of a teenager. I found that all the actors in this production were guilty to some degree of using contrived “we’re doing a play for children!” voices, which I always feel is condescending to the young audience members and undermines the very essence of children’s theatre as being a way for the youngest members of our society to connect ardently to stories that are relevant to their lives, in the same way that we, as adults, seek to connect to stories which are relevant for us. Jamie Robinson and Walter Borden were the most engaging actors to listen to and I found that they presented their characters with the most sincerity and respect, and thus, I feel like the children responded to them with the most gusto.
At the same time, director ahdri zhina mandiela created some vivid images and made good use of the stage, which was set in the round, and kept the actors continually moving, yet, I found that the comedic aspect of the show was not explored nearly as much as it could have been. The comic timing was particularly soupy, which meant that even jokes and puns inherent in Mordecai’s script were getting buried because the sense of play had not been established and the actors did not rise to the emotional heights needed to bring the comedy to life. There was a beautiful opportunity for brilliant comedic banter between the two twin beasts, one of which was hard of hearing. It was a match made in Vaudeville, or Saturday Morning Cartoon Heaven, and yet, despite this potential their scenes still fell flat.
Lastly, one of the most frustrating aspects of this show for me was how beautifully engaging the music in this show was at the beginning and the end and then how horrifically boring and languid it was while integrated into the plot. I wanted the creators to have created an entire score akin to that of a book musical, where songs advanced the plot and sprang organically from the action and infused the entire scene with a bolt of additional energy, passion and intensity. I wanted the Caribbean theme to unite each of these songs, like in a Disney film, with songs like Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s “Under the Sea,” a perfect combination of children’s music and musical theatre with Caribbean sensibilities. It was clear that Andrew Broderick is a talented dancer and I wished that there had been more opportunity for him to really have a chance to show off.
In all, El Numero Uno reminds me of the lesson that Chef Trenton teaches to Uno in the show: it may take significantly longer, it may require far more work and concentration, and it may not always be a whole lot of fun, but don’t rush or skimp on the ingredients, demand excellence from them, or else no matter how you put it all together, you’ll never get the perfect soup.
El Numero Uno plays at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People until February 25, 2010. It’s recommended for ages 8 and up. 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Tickets: $10 – $20. All prices include GST; service charges extra. Group rates available. Box Office: 416.862.2222. Schedule and online tickets: lktyp.ca.