It has been said that Blyth can do more with less - less budget, less time, fewer actors, costumes and sets - than its more well-known cousin down the road, because they invest in talent. Case in point, hiring Donna Feore, fresh off a hit with Fiddler on the Roof at the Stratford Festival, to direct a brand-spanking-new Canadian musical.
It is a gutsy move for a wee place like Blyth, investing in an unknown quantity, an untested story with unheard music, when their mandate and reputation is built on producing shows with local appeal. Local, in this case meaning rural, and not necessarily with worldly - shall we say Bardic? - sophistication.
But the acting artistic director Peter Smith knew a good thing when he saw it; he knew the story by Carolyn Hay with music by Tom Szczeniak was golden - rural roots soaked in enough sass to shake it up a bit in Blyth, and hired Donna Feore (who also recognized gold when she saw it) to not just shake it up but raise the bar to a whole new level.
This is not to say Yorkville is perfect - one or two characters are not as rounded as others, one of the subplots is a little weak, and there is no whiz-bang 11th hour number, so it is sure to be tweaked for some time yet. But it is as close to perfect that a world premiere is likely to get. Witty dialogue, characters that exude warmth and truth, snappy lyrics, hummable music, and funny! Cleverly, lewdly, naughtily, hilarious. Running gags, double-entendres, a bit of slapstick - you name it, there's something to incite anyone to fits of laughter.
Providing an almost unfair portion of the laughs is the award-winning Sarah Cornell as Tasia. A glamazon in the truest but loveliest sense of the word and Canada's answer to Joanna Lumley, Ms. Cornell does not just steal her scenes because of her tall stature (in fact Ms. Feore gets her sitting as often as possible to not detract from the others), but because her timing, accent and delivery are pitch-perfect. Her part - an all-business mail-order Russian bride - is written funnier than the others, and Ms. Cornell makes the most of every opportunity without going completely over the top.
Of the two leads - Jess Abramovitch as Jules and Stephanie Sy as Gabe, the small-town girls heading to the bright lights of Yorkville - Ms. Sy has the easier part in that she can allow what must be a natural effervescence to carry off Gabe's unwavering but naive enthusiasm; whereas Ms. Abramovitch must work harder to make the sullen and more practical Jules likeable. Both inhabit the characters well, their singing voices blend beautifully, and kudos to them (the entire cast, really) for learning some pretty credible step dancing in a mere four weeks.
The men of the play are a little under the shadow of the power-house women, but I suspect that is an aspect of the writing and generosity of the actors rather than a fault. Ryan Bondy plays the phony-baloney Chase with the eagerness of a sweet puppy; Michael Torontow's Preston is both hunky and vulnerable, and Rob Torr has the enviable task of filling out a host of other funny but small roles, from a snooty French waiter to an over-botoxed hairdresser.
The talent does not end with the cast, however. The elegantly simple set designed by Joanna Yu and lit by Rebecca Picherack suggests a ritzy boutique shopping neighbourhood, the shop windows filled with the Yorkville's trio of musicians - Junior Riggan, Stephan Szczesniak and his dad Tom - he who wrote the show's music (who treat Blyth's gathering audience to some truly bopping jazz as they take their seats). Their sound is deftly managed by John Gzowski - it is one of those "full-circle" moments when one realizes that John is the son of the late Peter Gzowski, who made it his life's mission to try "understand and express Canada's cultural identity"*. And is not this a perfectly fitting description of the Blyth Festival's production of Yorkville?
(That was a rhetorical question.)
Catch Yorkville at Memorial Hall at the Blyth Festival before it closes on August 11th.
*Adria, Marco Peter Gzowski: An Electric Life (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995)