Geoff Chapman, The Toronto Star
ARDEN CREATES ANOTHER WINNER
Leslie Arden is a major artistic talent, but that merely restates the obvious. Although many will remember the composer-lyricist’s triumphant The House Of Martin Guerre, few perhaps are aware of her Pandora’s Box of song treasures that’s been opened only fitfully in the past years.
Her remedy, one sure to warm Canadians who, as usual, are astounded that December means cool temperatures, is a new show. A Meeting Of Minds opened Tuesday night for three weeks at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley St. Theatre.
In a setting implying intimate musical theatre, three singers and a band against a spare background with minimal props, Arden has created another winner, a satisfying soufflé of more than 30 songs. She has dipped deeply into her masterpiece, but there are new concoctions, too, as well as material from other productions she put together, such as The Last Resort, The Greatest Gift and The Happy Prince. The resulting pastiche has a wispy theme about facing the new, and about hope and despair, but there’s no didactic element. What you get is a collection of songs swathed in sophistication, whose deceptively simple structures and sweetly sour lyrics have more impact in a few stanzas than an entire evening of some Andrew Lloyd Webber megaworks.
It helps that the smoothly directed production (that’s Allison Grant) employs singers familiar with Arden, their co-workers and the bigs. Julain Molnar won a Dora for her Martin role and she has been down the Stratford and Livent road; Glynis Ranney (another Martin vet) was at the Shaw Festival this year; and Jay Turvey, half of the pop group j-paul, has also performed at Stratford and in Livent whoppers. Arden plays piano and sings, backed by musical director Paul Sportelli (the other half of j-paul, Shaw Festival music chief and musical boss of Martin) on keyboards, bass Bob Hewus and drummer Blair MacKay.
Cohesion and timing are thus a given, but the performers bring a freshness and zest to a pastiche of styles and material – often laced with wit – that by its nature is uneven. There’s historical irony, jolly satire (“The Ladies’ List” should be WTN’s theme song), songs of sorrow (“Robert Dreams,” “The Sun Never Quite Makes It Through”), of macho optimism (“Fire”), of painful reality versus surface perception (“Happy New Year”). And a whole lot more.
Molnar scores particularly with “We Are Much The Same” and “It Started Out So Well,” Turvey with “After All These Years,” and Ranney delivered a showstopper on the gospelly “I Wanna Come Home To You.” And all worked wonders with the show’s closing offering: a long, emotional medley from Martin Guerre, a show few could ever forget.
Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
ARDEN’S ‘HOUSE’ BEAUTIFUL
To the top of the very short list of major young musical theater talents now at work, quickly add the name of Canadian-bred Leslie Arden, whose bravura new musical, “The House of Martin Guerre” received its U.S. premiere Monday night at the Goodman Theatre. Arden’s exceptional work, written in collaboration with writer Anna Theresa Cascio and directed by David Petrarca, is a remarkable achievement – meticulously structured, driven by a tautly beautiful and emotionally fiery score, and enhanced by a visually stunning production that takes its inspiration from Pieter Brueghel’s vibrant paintings of 16th century European peasant life.
Whether the musical finds a home on Broadway – and it should – hardly matters. (another version of the story, by the team behind “Les Miserables”, opens next week in London in a Cameron Mackinstosh production and is sure to provide fierce competition.) What’s most important is that Arden is an immensely gifted artist. Her show is bound to find a long life on stages around the world, and the force and clarity of her work suggests a formidable future.
The story of Martin Guerre, which has been recounted many times, has the quality of a fairy tale, though it is rooted in actual accounts of events that took place in the remote farming village or Artigat in southwestern France from 1538 to 1560.
As the show’s golden anthem, “The World Is Changing” suggests, great upheavals are in the air, with the rigid doctrines of the Middle Ages, full of superstition and restrictions, giving way to freer thought and a sense of progress. Nevertheless, Artigat remains a rather closed society, where an arranged marriage is customary and often necessary for economic survival.
It is just such a marriage, between Bertrande (played at age 11 by Cecily Strong and later by Julain Molnar) and Martin Guerre (portrayed as both a teenager and bitter war veteran by Guy Adkins), that becomes the catalyst for this tale. An angry adolescent trapped by convention, Martin ultimately abandons his wife; years later, Bertrande welcomes the arrival of a man (played by Anthony Crivello) who claims to be Guerre and offers her a first chance at true love.
With more than 30 songs, including several ravishing and unusual duets that also function as solos (“It Isn’t That Easy for Me” and No Life at All”) and a masterful choral work (“Eight Years”), Arden weaves this story with the blend of complexity, directness and sophistication found in the work of her mentor, Stephen Sondheim.
But she also is very much her own woman, putting a feminist spin on this tale without ever sacrificing historical truths and balancing an epic world view (from the confined role of women, to the rise of Protestantism, to the increasing possibility of geographic mobility) with a tight focus on intimate relationships (mother and daughter, father and son, brother and sisters, husband and wife, individual and community). This also is a show that can suggest change simply by depicting the hand0sifting of grain in one scene and introduction of a giant water wheel in another.
If the production has a weak spot, it is only the lack of a definitive moment in which Bertrande clearly acknowledges to the Guerre impostor that she knows exactly what is going on and that she has made the choice to go along.
Petrarca, in his most mature and evocative work to date, has created a seamless production, with splendid choreography by David Marques (the flamenco-influences dance of teenage rebellion, superbly performed by Adkins, is particularly inspired), and impeccable musical direction by Jeffrey Klitz. And he has assembled a firebrand cast – 26 actors with golden voices who deftly negotiate the precarious balance between period piece and modern sensibility. Arden’s acerbic, Broadway savvy wit also is well-served, from the light touch used to indicate eight years of childless marriage to a gentle meditation on shoe size.
Throughout, the transitions are made with subtlety and grace – from the almost magical, split-second transformation of Bertrande from child to woman to the return of Martin Guerre, as ill-tempered and arrogant as his boyish self.
Crivello, as Arnaud du Tilh, the man who assumes Guerre’s identity, flies on the force of his intelligence and self-confidence, and a voice of great dramatic impact. His final apology is a model of understated passion as his eyes finally meet those of his would-be wife in adoration and regret. Molnar, who has a glorious voice, visibly grows in power, suggesting the inner strength born of adversity. Watch her as she fights to enter the prison where her husband is being kept, and you will see a woman coming into her own.
Hollis Resnik, in the difficult role of Bertrande’s mother, stops the show with her song of a woman caught between two worlds. There also are splendid performances by Kevin Gudhal, as Guerre’s autocratic uncle; by the clarion-voiced Frances Limocelli, as Bertrande’s girlfriend, a forward-looking witness to change; by David Girolmo as Martin’s hearty father; by Kingsley Leggs as a probing judge; by Kelly Anne Clark and Marnie Nicolella as Martin’s spirited sisters (who are the source of perhaps just a bit too much comic relief), and by Strong as a Juliet-like bride who turns every beguiling lyric of “The Wedding Night” into a tiny, perfect pearl.
Robert Brill’s emblematic sets are dazzling in their purity – evoking a farmhouse, wheat fields, a Brueghel wedding feast, the worldly city of Toulouse and its formal courtroom with poetry and painterly precision. James F. Ingalls’ lighting suggests short days of sun and a deep emotional darkness and Susan Hilferty’s vivid earth-tone costumes seem lifted straight from a Breughel canvas.
Along with the plangent tones of Arden’s music, and her elegantly shaped lyrics and detailed storytelling, these radiant stage pictures capture the steady flow of nature and the mysterious beauty of a world on the brink of enlightenment.
Vit Wagner, The Toronto Star
WELCOME HOME MARTIN GUERRE – Maybe you can go home again, after all.
Canadian composer Leslie Arden’s musical The House of Martin Guerre (**** out of four) inspired considerable hope when it had its premiere here four years ago. The production, by now-defunct theatre Plus Toronto, was lean and sparely orchestrated, but the grace and intelligence of Arden’s lyrics and score gave a glimmer of its boundless potential.
After some additional workshopping, assistance on the book from Anna Theresa Cascio and a critically acclaimed reception at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last summer, the show has made a triumphant return in a Canadian Stage Company production that opened last night at the St. Lawrence Centre’s Bluma Appel Theatre.
The title will make some think of The House of Bernarda Alba, Garcia Lorca’s dark drama about the suffocating customs imposed on women in traditional Spain. So it’s fitting that Arden’s version of the Martin Guerre story – the oft-told tale of a mysterious man who causes a stir when he miraculously returns to his 16th century rural French village after nearly a decade on the battlefields – is tightly focused on the lot of women in that society. Specifically, it involves the fortunes of Bertrande, an 11-year-old forced to wed a boy of 14, Martin Guerre, who shows no inclination of affection toward her. After years of neglecting her, Guerre flees the town, only to return eight years later, a new man. Literally. It is no great mystery the returning conqueror is actually an impostor, a reformed ne’er-do-well, Arnaud, who fought alongside Martin. The irony is that the impostor is a more devoted husband than the original, allowing Bertrande to become complicitous in the deceit.
The book has been improved to noticeable effect, although the nature of the real Martin Guerre’s misogyny needs explanation, especially since there are moments when the writers seem to flirt with the idea that he is a homosexual.
But the solid basis of the show remains Arden’s beautifully crafted score. It has strong musical theme that supports the story’s throughline about the conflict between tradition and change, without making you feel as if you’ve been listening to the same song for 2½ hours. “Seasons Pass” is a moving duet that nails this theme, but there are also stirring romantic numbers (“No Life At All”), intricate ensemble pieces (“Every Word Is True”) and a truly memorable duet about hope and regret sung by Bertrande and her best friend (“It Isn’t That Easy For Me”).
Fittingly, Julain Molnar, as the adult Bertande, is the production’s heart and soul. Her voice soars with the character’s hopes, at the same time as she expresses the woman’s emerging sense of self-worth and conviction. Roger Honeywell, an actor known mainly for his dramatic work at the Shaw Festival, vents powerful pipes as the confident and dignified Arnaud. And his deftness as an actor shows in the scene where Arnaud cleverly strings anecdotal tidbits to convince the townsfolk that he is actually Martin Guerre.
Director David Petrarca’s production is fine from top to bottom and gorgeously dressed in Robert Brill’s burnished, autumnal set. The supporting work is vivid and colourful, including Sharon Matthews as Bertrande’s loyal friend Catherine, Hollis Resnik as the mother torn between the demands of society and loyalty to her daughter, Patty Jamieson and Glynis Ranney as Martin’s ditsy sisters and Kevin Gudal as Martin’s suspicious and contentious uncle.
All in all, a fine return for Martin Guerre.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
This show is smarter and has a better score than at least 80 percent of the shows on Broadway in the last five years. The quality of Arden’s lush, tuneful, varied and intensely moving music — along with the conceptual and commercial soundness of setting a “Much Ado” musical as American troupes return home from World War II — will be immediately clear to anyone who cares about this art form.
Sure, there are some stutters early in the first act. But Act 2 already is an eye-popper. And an eye-mister. This thing is that emotionally engaging. Why? It’s simple. Arden writes gorgeous music and lyrics about the hopes, pain, love and aspirations of ordinary folks. And she does so with truth.
It was clear from the Goodman Theatre’s widely overlooked “Martin Guerre” years ago that Arden is a huge talent. So why don’t Broadway producers wake up? As you’d expect from the concept, this piece is warm, light and kind. But what you don’t expect is the sophistication of feeling and idea.
Roger Kershaw & Jim Longerfelt, A Stage Door Review
Not to be confused with the Cameron Macintosh production of Boublil & Schonberg’s impostor Martin Guerre that tried to take London by storm last year, The House of Martin Guerre, with music and lyrics by Leslie Arden and a book by Leslie Arden & Anna Theresa Cascio, opened the 1997-98 Canadian Stage Company season at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The glitterati in attendance were presented with a sweeping tale of love, deceit, betrayal and redemption, driven by a beautiful, soaring, and fiery score. Judging by the thunderous and longest standing ovation we have ever seen, the real Martin Guerre has triumphantly returned to Toronto.
The musical has an interesting pedigree. It was developed from a germ of an idea in 1991 following some masterclasses with Stephen Sondheim, whom Arden cites as one of the biggest musical influences in her life. Sondheim and Canadian composers Jim Betts and Joey Miller all provided ongoing critiques of the work in progress. Arden, who would seem to have a great future, was drawn to the emotional story and period, which lent itself to a dramatic score. The previous incarnation of refined book and music went on to win rave reviews at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it was named Best Musical at the 1996 Jefferson Awards.
Comparisons are inevitable with London’s West End Guerre, which we saw last year. The British/French mega-musical has a lush and complex orchestration that Arden is unable to match with her experience and smaller orchestral forces. The Canadian incarnation, however, has a far stronger book, and, like the “other” version, is wonderful to look at. At a press conference in Toronto this week to announce the return of his Les Misérables to Toronto in 1998, Cameron Macintosh was asked what he thought of two musicals on the same subject in such a short period of time. Macintosh, who himself was instrumental in getting Arden’s version on the boards, explained that the timeless and fascinating story is the perfect platform for this type of theatre.
The House of Martin Guerre is a true story, set in a time when the world was emerging into the age of enlightenment and Protestantism was taking a firm hold in the heart of Europe. An arranged marriage, or merger, joins 11-year-young Bertrande de Rols to a fiercely reluctant youth of 15 (and implied homosexual), Martin Guerre, in the small southern French village of Artigat in 1557. After eight tumultuous years of unconsummated marriage, Martin finally beds Bertrande, then abandons her, fleeing Artigat. Eight years later, a much changed Martin Guerre returns, unexpectedly, with tall tales of war and adventure, to reclaim his former life, and his lands that, in his absence, have been administered by his covetous uncle. But is this the real Martin Guerre? Can a man have changed that much? His wife takes him back, but, faced with the ultimate test of her love, Bertrande must make the most difficult decision of all. The House of Martin Guerre centres on the poignant story of Bertrande as an individual striving to find truth and dignity despite the collective forces working against her.
Arden’s work has a decidedly feminist bent focusing on Bertrande (Julain Molnar) and the choices society, and men, have forced upon her. Many of the wonderfully tuneful songs concentrate on her lot, and that of women’s in general. “The Way of the World,” sung by Bertrande’s mother, Bernarde (Hollis Resnick), is a wonderfully written and thrilling anti-anthem to a woman’s “place” in a man’s world. “The Wedding Night” is a sweet lament to Young Bertrande’s (Stephanie Ekstein) scornful husband (Shaun Amyot), while “No Life at All,” a ravishing duet with Bertrande and Arnaud (Roger Honeywell) and “The World is Changing,” are the “big” songs that we won’t soon forget. Unlike other recent musicals by unproven talents, the audience leaves the theatre humming.
The House of Martin Guerre brings to the stage an extraordinary group of talents. Molnar, who premiered the role of Bertrande in Chicago, is completely captivating. Her strong lyric soprano washes over the audience in ravishing waves that electrify and thrill. Honeywell, a gifted actor well known to Shaw Festival audiences, energizes with an exceptional voice, while Hollis Resnik brings down the house in the second act with intense and moving singing.
In support and providing outstanding contributions are Kevin Gudahl as Uncle Pierre, unknown to us before this opening, who has a marvelously expressive voice and a great stage presence. Sharron Matthews as Catherine, Bertrande’s best friend, is possessed of formidable gifs, and Martin’s sisters, played by Patty Jamieson and Glynis Ranney, provide the required comic relief, reminiscent of Cinderella’s helpful mice as they scurry around her in good-natured argument. And to steal our hearts, there’s Luca Perlman as Little Sanzi, Martin’s son, fresh from his role as Chi in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The evocative, but wonderfully simplistic designs were inspired y Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of 16th century European peasant life. They are the responsibility of Robert Brill as set designer, Susan Hilferty as costume designer and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting based on original lighting by James F. Ingalls.
Arden and friends have created a meticulously structured, complex, emotional, and stunningly beautiful production that will live long in our collective memories. With taut and seamless direction by David Petrarca, the result is spectacular. Don’t miss it.
Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star
If you like puzzles, you will love Leslie Arden. The woman generally acknowledged to be the finest composer/lyricist of musical theatre and the creator of some of the most sophisticated work on our stages…lives on a working farm near Barrie, Ontario, and originally thought she was going to pursue a career as a veterinarian.
Mira Friedlander, New York Variety
Composer-lyricist Leslie Arden has not only done her mentors Cameron Mackintosh and Stephen Sondheim proud, she has, in writing “The House of Martin Guerre”, also created something so fresh, so resoundingly complete and rewarding, that there is talk that her first major show may yet land on Broadway.
What makes this especially remarkable is that the subject matter is none other than Martin Guerre; unaware of the more famous Boublil-Schonberg project, she was writing her sung-through musical at the same time. After a series of workshops, Arden’s musical was presented at Chicago’s Goodman Theater last year.
And in its triumphant Canadian Stage company production under the direction of David Petrarca, “The House of Martin Guerre” proves an excellent musical. Devoid of special effects, Robert Brill’s single set is a clever slatted wooden wall with a series of doors and windows, and Kevin Lamotte’s highly evocative lighting sends slivers of sunshine cascading onto the sky-and-wheat-fields backdrop. Crude wooden furniture reflects the play’s medieval setting, while Susan Hilferty’s colorful costumes swirl and flow.
The focus, then, is on the story, and what a story it is. Arden and co-book-writer Anna Theresa Cascio have focused not on Guerre, but on his luckless wife, Bertrande, thus crafting this story of forced marriage and tragic love into an eloquent plea for women’s rights.
In one of the most poignant musical numbers, Bertrande’s mother lays down the law for her daughter with the words, “This is the way of a woman’s world.” Hollis Resnik’s wrenching delivery of the song spotlights the way in which the harsh lyrics collide with an achingly sweet melody.
Arden’s score is diverse and unexpected without being obscure, while the lyrics reflect a generosity of spirit and honesty. There isn’t a moment in this show that lacks integrity or relies on sentimentality to make points.
Nor do Arden and Cascio wallow in the doom and gloom of their sad story. The show ends with a reprise of a song called “The World is Changing,” sung with hope, grief and a quiet defiance by Bertrande.