Gary Smith, The Hamilton Spectator
MUSICAL REVUE SUNG WITH GLORIOUS PASSION
Just when you thought sophistication and wit were in short supply, these beguiling commodities at Toronto’s Berkley Street Theatre have both qualities in spades.
The show is Leslie Arden And Friends: A Meeting Of Minds. It’s fearlessly directed by Allison Grant. And the rather protracted title is the only thing at all cumbersome about this richly rewarding revue.
Revue, however, is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. What Arden has actually done here is take a clutch of her own brilliant theatre songs and fashion from the raw power of their combustible energy an evening of glorious entertainment.
It’s an elegant, sophisticated affair, one that bristles with brazen invention. It is, in fact, art masquerading as entertainment. And that’s something that’s very hard to achieve.
The songs, music and lyrics are all by Arden. And they’re all remarkably good. But come to think of it, that shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the same female wunderkind who created the astounding musical The House of Martin Guerre. Arden has also written the score for The Last Resort, the April production for Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. She traverses the polarities between these disparate examples of her musical art with a variety of intoxicating songs. If she suggests anything other than her wonderful self, it’s her mentor Stephen Sondheim, to whom Arden appears to pay homage with her rueful fairytale songs that coax a ripple of laughter even as they pierce the heart. These songs cut the cortex of sentimentality surfacing a little anger and rage here, filtering humour into musical nooks and crannies there, generally leavening matters nicely. She employs the same complex internal rhymes and unexpected flights of complicated musical structures as Sondheim, or better yet, William Finn, creator of A New Brain.
Arden surrounds herself here with a chamber group of wonderful old friends. Musically she’s supported by Blair Mackay, Bob Hewus and the magnificent Paul Sportelli. Somehow, along with Arden at the piano, they make a quartet sound like a symphony orchestra.
Vocally, she has three of the smartest performers in musical theatre today. And yes, notice I deliberately didn’t say CANADIAN musical theatre. There’s no need for equivocation here. Jay Turvey, Julain Molnar and Glynis Ranney sing alone and collectively with glorious passion. They are musical performers who find the spaces between the notes, the heartbeats between the words, soaring in exquisite connection with Arden’s music and with the sheer joy of singing with each other.
And oh yes, Arden sings too. So well, in fact, you wonder why we haven’t heard her much before. Not surprisingly, she brings the same commitment to performance that she brings to her melodic acts of creation.
Arden’s performance conspirators each offer haunting moments that linger in the imagination. Turvey raises the roof with “The World Is Changing”, letting the song soar from somewhere inside his soul, erupting in a riveting fury of passion. Molnar ignites the slow ache of “We Are Much The Same”, a devastating love song with a difference. And Ranney, sly and sexy, struts the wit and wisdom of “Live A Little, Julia” with sustained arches of brassy cool.
Allan Wilbee’s platform set with its gazebo-like structure is fine, though it doesn’t need the rather rumpled parchment music staves that surround it. A minor wrinkle. And at times, Louise Guinand’s elegant lighting is just a tad too much.
No matter. What matters here most is the magnificent Leslie Arden, songmaker with a soul, creator of musical moments that exist somewhere beyond the stage. If you care about musical theatre, you owe it to yourself to see Leslie Arden And Friends. Let’s face it, if this were the United States, they’d already be hocking the CD in the lobby. And somebody with brains and money would be moving this bona fide hit to a larger theatre.