Jukebox zeroes

Musical about three dumped ladies cheats us all through nostalgia


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Jukebox musicals are like unfaithful husbands.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/03/2017 (2269 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jukebox musicals are like unfaithful husbands.

They’re cheats.

It’s best to get that opinion on the table when it comes to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Bittergirl: The Musical by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence and Mary Francis Moore.

DYLAN HEWLETT PHOTO Three women bond over freshly failed relationships.

The core of the story is very specific, coming from the lives of the three Toronto playwrights who collaborated on the original non-musical play bittergirl as a creative coping mechanism after all three suffered relationship breakups back in 1999.

Their collective experience was woven into a play that invited audiences to have a few laughs of recognition, whether listening to the lame excuses of the dumper, or commiserating with the dubious survival strategies of the dumpee, which include calling in sick to work, exiling oneself to bed and obsessively driving by the ex’s home.

The original play incorporated girl-group music of the 1950s and ’60s as a kind of dramatic punctuation. Bittergirl: The Musical weaves its songs directly into the mix, employing seasoned musical performers into the roles. Rebecca Auerbach is A, a 35-year-old anticipating a proposal when her boyfriend announces he is leaving. B (Sarite Harris) is a younger single, likewise romantically kneecapped when her boyfriend flies the coop. C (Alana Hibbert) is especially wounded because she has a child with her boyfriend, who abandons them both to realize a hitherto untold ambition to join the RCMP.

All three boyfriends are played by Michael Torontow, whose characters are alternately defined by cowardice, immaturity or delusion. (The fact that Torontow still manages to be somewhat likable is a singular achievement in itself.)

Throughout the 105-minute running time of the play (including an intermission), recognizable pop songs are employed as an emotional shorthand for the characters. The flush of true love is sung in an opening medley interpolating The Supremes’ I Hear a Symphony, and The Crystals’ double-shot And Then He Kissed Me and He’s a Rebel.

Subsequent heartbreak gets interpreted in songs such as Where Did Our Love Go?, Mama Said and Anyone Who Had a Heart. And so on.

Directed by Krista Jackson, it’s best enjoyed as a showcase for its performers. Auerbach, Harris and Hibbert are accomplished pop belters and each makes the most of her solos. For a “fitness medley” in which the three women employ a fitness regimen to get back on their feet, choreographer Kimberly Rampersad employs some intricately funny moves in an impressive display of graceful slapstick.

It all happens against a two-tiered, ’60s pop-art-infused backdrop designed by Charlotte Dean, with music director Rachel Cameron’s all-female four-piece band providing live on-stage accompaniment on the upper tier. The set is as lovely to look at as the ’60s and ’70s music is lovely to hear, but both are temporally disconnected from a story that is struggling to be contemporary.

It amounts to a swell cabaret experience. But as a musical, again, it feels like a cheat.

In the best musicals, songs carry the plot forward. In a jukebox musical, the songs are there to be enjoyed in much the same way as one enjoys a Golden Oldies radio station, as a relaxing bask in the familiar. Here, the songs are shoehorned into the narrative, whether they fit (I Will Survive) or not (Hot Stuff).

One notable exception to this is a flat-out mockery of the Nazareth power ballad Love Hurts, which Torontow hilariously performs with the wind-machine-augmented bombast of Michael Bolton, cubed.

As a work of theatre, Bittergirl: The Musical is a fun diversion, if not an enduring work. To paraphrase the Canadian band Trooper: it’s here for a good time, not a long time.

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.


Updated on Friday, March 17, 2017 4:27 PM CDT: Cutline added.

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