Big-dreaming, well-intentioned Mirvish rival Dancap Productions is leaving Toronto in just a couple weeks after an inspiring but unprofitable 5-year run. Before they go, they have two big musicals taking stages uptown (Million Dollar Quartet– Toronto Centre for the Arts) and downtown (Beauty & The Beast– Four Seasons Centre). Neither is perfect but one is certainly much closer than the other.
Let’s start with the good news: Million Dollar Quartet is pretty good. It drags a bit in the middle and Eddie Clendening could be more magnetic as Elvis Presley (though, in all fairness, to be as magnetic as Elvis Presley is a pretty tall order), but the songs are fun, the story interesting and the casting generally pretty great (Martin Kaye is particularly wonderful as a slightly manic Jerry Lee Lewis and Derek Keeling nails Johnny Cash’s signature vocals beautifully). The play (it’s not Really a musical unless the singing replaces dialogue) is essentially a real-time recounting of the 1956 jam session between Presley, Cash, Lewis and Carl Perkins at the independent record label where they each began their career. Jam sessions are a fun phenomenon to watch and behind-the-scenes glimpses at legends will always have a certain fascination, so on those fronts alone the storytelling is a success. On top of that is layered the tense interpersonal connections and professional confrontations of the four stars and their mentor Sam Phillips (“Blue Suede Shoes” was Carl’s song but Elvis made it famous; Johnny is leaving Sam’s label for Columbia records; Jerry Lee is the new guy so sure of himself that he alienates the others).
Because I’m young and decently uncool, my knowledge of early rock and roll legends is sparse at best. Everything I know about Johnny Cash I learned from Joaquin Phoenix and I know Jerry Lee Lewis as the guy who sang “Great Balls of Fire” before Goose, so it was really only Elvis who was subject to any “your mannerism are inaccurate” scrutiny. Coming at the interpretations with fresh eyes but passing familiarity with the hit songs, I found very little to nitpick apart from the occasional pacing issue and my firm belief that Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne should be cut (why is she there? All she does is make it an awkward quintet). The rock concert ending is a blast and the musicianship impressive throughout (Again, Kaye is the standout, pounding away at Lewis’ piano like his life depends on it). Million Dollar Quartet is a lot of fun, especially if you’re not a rock purist (goodness knows Keeling’s likable and well-adjusted Cash must be inaccurate if we’re being strict about who was maybe a little bit crazy), and it even has the occasional moment of honest-to-god emotional resonance in its themes of friendship, loyalty and artistic devotion.
As unlikely and unprepared an audience member as I was for Million Dollar Quartet, I was the complete opposite at Beauty & The Beast. When the film came out in 1991 it became the first thing I remember seeing in the cinema with my parents, and it is, to this day, one of my favourite movies ever made. When I was little I used to make my family watch while I paced around the living room holding whatever book was available (usually a Greg Norman golf guide), re-enacting that wonderful first scene full of “Bonjours” and sheep-petting. The first time the musical came to Toronto I got tickets for my birthday, quickly learned every word of the soundtrack, and developed a full-fledged stage crush on Dan Chameroy (who, awkwardly, was playing Gaston, not the Beast. But he was so good!). Whenever I take a Facebook quiz asking “which Disney princess are you?” or “who’s your Disney prince?” I, without fail, get Belle or Prince Adam (did you know The Beast’s name was Adam?). What I’m trying to get across here is that Beauty & The Beast is a formative text in my existence, a story I’ve loved longer than any other, and the Disney version specifically formed the basis of my musical and narrative tastes. So I was pretty excited to see that Dancap was bringing Belle back to Toronto.
Now, I’ve seen many a Beauty & The Beast in my time- there was a student production once where they made their own ball gown out of yellow cotton and the singing dishes had pointy or round cardboard taped to their head to signify “knife” or “spoon”- but as long as there’s a strong sense of character and story (and a decent voice or two) in the production, I don’t care at all who’s presenting it. But the current touring production that Dancap’s brought in, man, it’s just bad. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Dane Agostini’s lackluster singing voice and while I do wish it were stronger for the sake of the incredibly beautiful ballad “If I Can’t Love Her”, I’d rather have a convincing Beast than a technically perfect one who can’t sell anything. I actually didn’t mind Agostini; he’s over-directed and has zero chemistry with Emily Behny’s Belle, but he has acceptable comic timing and decent sincerity so it’s fine. Behny, however, is whiny and doesn’t mesh with anyone on stage, so considering Belle is a part that at any given time has 100 girls lined up who can do it well and would kill to, I just can’t tolerate mediocrity. What hurts Belle more than anything in this production, I think, is the decision to cut one of the musical’s best songs “No Matter What”. The duet with her father is key to Belle’s development (and it’s a cool song- created for the musical out of a passage of score from that section of the film), so while I’m on board with cutting “La Maison des Lunes”, taking out “No Matter What” irks me.
As for the rest of the cast, they are mostly all forgettable, with the exception of Michael Haller who is notable for being difficult to understand beneath his Lumiere accent. The best in the cast is Matt Farcher who at least has the voice and affectation to pull of Gaston (the most fun role by far), though if the costuming had been less a) cheap or b) explicit, it would have done him wonders (as it is, he’s hidden under an atrocious pelt of a wig). The production attempts to replicate exactly the original and the film, but doesn’t have the resources to do so. Touring productions don’t need to look shoddy, but this one does because it overreaches in some areas (the quippy gay boys sitting behind me saw Belle’s ball gown and just hissed and said “too much, much too much”) then suffers for it elsewhere (were those gargoyles moving the set? They just looked like guys in grey spandex). Beauty & The Beast is such a beautiful story and the Broadway version is well enough written that it will read even without too much fuss. In this version, the human truths behind the kicklines and faux-palatial decor get completely lost because, from the set and costuming to the over-the-top staged gags to Lefou’s acrobatics, there’s just too much stuff and not enough thought.