Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Delightful Diversion: Shaw Festival's Me and My Girl

Michael Therriault and Elodie Gillett in the Shaw Festival production of Me and My Girl.  (Photo: David Cooper) 

Me and My Girl, the 1930s musical with a revised book by British writer and comedian Stephen Fry, knocked them dead, as they used to say in the theatre, when it opened Saturday night at the Shaw Festival. The audience jumped to its feet for a roaring standing ovation which rightly praised Ashlie Corcoran's rollicking direction along with the crackerjack cast featuring Michael Therriault and Kristi Frank in lead roles.

The show, which continues at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 14, has launched new artistic director Tim Carroll's first season at the helm of Shaw, the Niagara-the-Lake theatre festival committed to staging the dramatic works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw along with the other works from the Shavian era, with a bang. There's no shortage of enthusiasm here.

Frank, a high-voltage performer with outsize charm, plays the girl in the title, a cockney spitfire named Sally Smith who is as bowled over as her boyfriend is when it is revealed that, as the newly discovered illegitimate son of the late Earl of Hareford, he has inherited a title and estate. "Cor, it's just like the Ritz," says Sally, speaking with a Bow Bell accent, on joining her beau, Bill Snibson, a fruit seller from the London suburb of Lambeth, in the polished environs of his new uppercrust digs. But not so easy.

As performed by Therriault, a marvellous actor-singer with quicksilver comic timing, smooth dance moves and can't-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma, Bill must first demonstrate to his aristocrat relatives that he is "fit and proper" to become a member of their class. The Pygmalion story but with the gender roles reversed.

Bill's tutor in all things "noblesse oblige" is Aunt Maria (a pitch-perfect Sharry Flett), his late (and unknown) father's iron-willed duchess of a sister, who decrees that to advance himself socially upward he must cut ties with his past, which would include the aforementioned Sally. It ain't gonna happen. "Nothing will separate me and my girl," pledges Bill, breaking into a Busby Berkeley-esque song-and-dance routine which casts his defiance in sunshine. The warmth is contagious.

Me and My Girl is a feel-good experience, start to finish. While set in the Depression, the Noel Gay musical, with original book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Ferber, is consciously upbeat. The dire economic realities of the day are referred to but only to provide fodder for the comic plot. Bill's newfound cousin, Lady Jacqueline Carstone (played by a feisty √Člodie Gillett) openly declares she will marry for money, as money has become in short supply even where she lives, among the upper classes. She moves quickly to replace her debt-ridden, same-class fianc√©, the Honourable Gerald Bolingbroke (a hilarious Kyle Blair) with East Ender Bill, except he continually rebuffs her aggressive sexual advances. No one can tempt him away from Sally not even Sally herself ,who thinks she had better mind her place and stick with people of her own station, so as not to make Bill look "stupid," she says. Others also intervene.

Sir John Tremayne (the meticulously funny Ric Reid) is co-executor with Maria of the Hareford clan's will, and initially he wants to thwart the whole affair. But being secretly in love with the duchess, whom he has known since childhood, turns the older gentleman into a sympathetic ally, at least where Sally is concerned. With solicitor Parchester (a delightful Jay Turvey) on his side, he meets up with Sally at the local pub and also back at her bedsit in Lambeth as part of a conspiracy that would keep the lovers together, regardless of the class war raging around them. The happy ending he helps bring about will also involve him. True love ultimately wins the day. Pluck trumps privilege.

It's a heartfelt message, unapologetically simple, and delivered at a time when the headlines of the day scream of terrorist attacks, heedless carnage and political subterfuge of the most cynical order. Enough already.

Michael Therriault and Kristi Frank. (Photo: David Cooper)

At the Saturday night premiere, the audience laughed uproariously at pratfalls and other sight gags born of the vaudevillian era, finding refuge in the escapism which Me and My Girl so engagingly, and refreshingly, represents.

Corcoran's spirited direction appears rooted in memories of how musicals can be corny and get away with it, as long as they are supported by hummable music, energetic hoofing and no-holds-barred physical acting, the kind that makes you just happy to be in a theatre and not in the real world.

In this production, jokes run fast and furious across a stage illuminated by Kevin Lamotte's bright and cheery lighting design and costumed by Sue LePage's eccentric designs ranging from 1930s tea dresses and Duke of Windsor check-patterned suits with buttoned breeches to punk-era torn stockings and safety-pinned black leather. Drew Facey's multi-tasking two-tiered set design is on wheels, allowing for quick scene changes and glimpses into the upstairs-downstairs mentality of England's once rigid class structure.

Parker Essie's tap- and jazz-inflected choreography is also nostalgic-looking, with dance routines incorporating the flying circles of Lindy Hop and the staged poses of the Nicholas Brothers. A romantic space-eating duet, performed with elegance and flair by Frank and Therriault, recalls Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding cheek to cheek in the 1935 film, Top Hat.

But this isn't theatre as it was done before. One sign that Corcoran's buoyant production is of the times is its mixed-race cast. Black actors take marquee roles in a play having to do with upper-class advantages and manners. They include Jeremiah Sparks as the hard-of-hearing Sir Jasper Tring and Kiera Sangster as the gossipy Sophia Stainsley-Asherton. Other actors of colour are in the ensemble, alternating as both members of the house staff and the aristocracy. This isn't about political correctness. It's about looking to introduce equity at the front lines of Canadian theatre, which is long overdue.

As a theme it dovetails nicely with a musical in which the notion of class distinctions is a core concept. Me and My Girl keeps it light while still asking some probing questions about personal identity as an expression of social standing and adherence. It's why this old musical still captures our attention, despite the passing of the years.

But there's another reason why it remains a winner. Me and My Girl is bright and snappy, both in dialogue and in tunes. Bursting with Cockney rhyming slang and verbal wit, it captures a collective joy, perhaps no more so than with "The Lambeth Walk," a song-and-dance number in which the classes ultimately merge, forgetting their differences while moving to the same big rhythms.

A key component of the original 1937 production of Me and My Girl, "The Lambeth Walk" really did get people dancing together, and in the streets. When first presented 80 years ago, "The Lambeth Walk" became a strut-and-thrust dance craze that celebrated the Cockney culture which gives rise to it in the play. Its popularity reportedly extended to Buckingham Palace, where a performance attended by King George VII and Queen Elizabeth saw the royals shouting out the Cockney expression, "Oi!," which comes at the end of the chorus. The dance also inspired a film, The Lambeth Walk, which came out in 1939.

It's doubtful that the dance seen at Shaw will have the same impact. The choreography is far too complex, for one thing, to replicate at home. But its return to public awareness is most welcome, if only as a reminder of how once upon a time musical theatre had widespread influence, even as a form of fantasy. The genius of this revival of Me and My Girl is that Corcoran has brought that fantasy back to life, giving people license to lose themselves in laughter and silliness. It's a wonderful diversion, not to be missed 

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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