Originally set to premiere in 2020 after a long development process, it feels as though Britta Johnson & Sara Farb’s musical collaboration Kelly vs. Kelly has been in the “hotly anticipated” category forever. It’s easy to understand why with buzzy proven talents writing the book (Farb) and music & lyrics (Johnson) and all The Musical Stage Company’s muscle behind them to allow for the large cast and five-piece band a full scale musical deserves but so rarely gets, especially when its new, especially in Canada. Active effort and resources are finally being put into the development of new Canadian musicals since the success of Come From Away and Kelly vs. Kelly is certainly at the forefront of that progress.
Johnson’s score is catchy and complex if not particularly distinctive and Tracey Flye’s direction doesn’t overcomplicate but it doesn’t add much either. It’s the cast that makes the case for Kelly v. Kelly‘s success with across-the-board strong vocals and a particularly effective dramatic performance from Jessica Sherman as the controlling mother who kicks off the action by having her daughter (Eva Foote) arrested for gallivanting around town and sullying the otherwise pristine family name of Kelly. If that premise sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. It’s a true story, but it’s still a difficult one to swallow and, despite Sherman’s effectiveness, Farb’s book fails the herculean task of carving out any real empathy for the mother. Pity, sure; but empathy’s just a little beyond the facts of this case. A strong trio of friends helps flesh out the perspective of the younger generation, highlighted by a particularly vibrant Julia McLellan, though Foote’s inconsistent performance and the over-the-top sass of her courtroom appearances as written and directed make it hard to root for anyone in this obnoxious battle of wills. Jeremy Walmsley is a very convincing charmer and the show’s greatest moment is when Foote finally sees through him but such clarity is otherwise absent from the actions of the main characters. The seemingly triumphant and bittersweet ending is rushed and confusing.
I’m thrilled to see a new Canadian musical get this level of support and a real production- it’s not a reading or a workshop or a scaled down cabaret version, it’s the full show in a form that could go somewhere- and I do think Johnson is a worthy artist for this level of support. But Kelly vs. Kelly stands on a very rickety foundation of just not that great a story. It’s got a good message and some nice moments, and a really very good cast, but it’s neither sturdy nor unique enough to be what I think everyone wants it to be.