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Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review: Panych and Cast Weave New Spell in Wanderlust

Tom Rooney as Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.
Wanderlust, book and additional lyrics by Morris Panych
Directed by Morris Panych; Music, Orchestration and Musical Direction by Marek Norman
Based on the poems by Robert Service

The story: Robert Service is a bank ledgerkeeper who does not quite fit in. His mind wanders from keeping numbers to adventures in the Yukon (even though the gold rush is almost over), and he composes poems of his imagined adventures. However, he cannot quite bring himself to act on this wanderlust, because the woman he loves, Louise, has engaged herself to another man - Dan McGrew.

Morris Panych is no stranger to adapting and premiering brand-new works for the stage, having done so with The Trespassers and MobyDick for the Stratford Festival in recent years. In this case his commission was to use the poems of Robert Service - Scottish-born but claimed by Canada as a native son - to tell a fictional but highly entertaining story of Service's pre-Yukon life and what might have inspired some of those poems. To boot, he also sets them to music, composed by Marek Norman.

The result would make the story-teller poet proud, the music and framework honouring not just his words but the spirit of the man, his sense of wonder and the spirit of adventure he immortalized in his famous rhyming poems.

Panych assembled a master-class cast, starting with the ever-startling Tom Rooney as Robert Service. Despite a couple of verbal opening-night stumbles, Mr. Rooney recreates the poet as a quirky, quick-witted dreamer, both lacking ambition and anxious to get away (in fact, Service hated working; in his earliest wanderings he would often work just long enough to earn boat or train fare to the next port of call). A portrait of a man living perhaps too much in his own head, nevertheless Service's love of poetry and his yearning for the Yukon are palpable in Mr. Rooney's performance, as is his desperate love for (the largely fictional) Louise.

Robin Hutton as Louise and Tom Rooney as Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.
Less palpable is Louise's love for him; as played by Robin Hutton, Louise remains something of an enigma until the very end - she obviously cares for Robert, but has agreed to marry the arrogant assistant bank-manager; it is this betrayal that Panych imagines inspired "The Shooting of Dan McGrew". Panych gives Louise a desperate wish of her own that is not often seen in Service's poetry, which allows Ms. Hutton to create a sympathetic  character with whom modern audiences can identify. The duet she and Mr. Rooney share ("Unforgotten") contains some of the sweetest moments of the play, depicting how two people can be closer while remaining apart.

Dan McGrew is brought to near larger-than-life proportions by Dan Chameroy, who gives the character no redeeming qualities whatsoever - McGrew is untouched by sentiment, is a bully and provokes his fellow employees to mock Service whenever possible. Yet Mr. Chameroy is such a charismatic singer and performer that one cannot help liking McGrew just a tiny bit, even when he admits he his only marrying Louise because he wants her, not because he loves her.
Dan Chameroy and Tom Rooney as Dan McGrew and Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.

Randy Hughson plays that other well-known Service character, Sam McGee. (Panych imagines that Service dreamed up this poem, and in waking up with the very-much-alive Mr. McGee in front of him, he screams like a little girl.) Mr. Hughson has the happy gift of dry, gruff joviality that can get a laugh sometimes merely with a look. It is a shame his voice and harmonica-playing is lost under the rest of the orchestra at times, because he is worth hearing.

Randy Hughson as McGee.
Photo by David Hou.
Other actors that deserve kudos include Ken James Stuart as the toady, eager Noah; Xuan Fraser as the uptight ledgerkeeper Blount, Troy Adams for his near show-stopping singing narration of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and Lucy Peacock who does a drunk, lusty former madam with aplomb and more than one touch of subtle bitterness.

Lucy Peacock (left) and members of the Wanderlust company.
Photo by David Hou.
Panych's staging is brilliant. Using desks and office supplies - literal trappings for Robert Service -  Ken MacDonald's set, the cast and Dana Osbourne's costumes are transformed into sled dogs, rag-time pianos, billowing clouds of snow, the wreck of a boat on Lake Lebarge (thanks to choreographer Diana Coatsworth), and the flames of its makeshift crematorium. The lighting, sound and video effects (by Alan Brodie, Jim Neil and Sean Nieuwenhuis respectively) are all remarkable, from the projected images of a snowstorm, to the soaring shadow of an eagle, to the roar of flames or wind. This creates new worlds within the confines of the primary set - that of a bank. It all works to underscore one of themes of the musical, and that of theatre itself - that a world of adventure can be imagined and inspired wherever you are.

Members of the company in Wanderlust.
Photo by David Hou.
Cast, book, staging, music and design - they all work in this show in a cohesive, beautiful unit which is fantastic for a world premiere. This musical is at times hilarious, at times poignant, and at all times entertaining.  If it has you booking a ticket for Whitehorse or reciting parts of Robert Service's poems, I wouldn't be surprised.

Wanderlust continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Your review is right on the money. I loved it! Mr. Panych is a genius.


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