Review: The Wrong Son by Allen Cole

The National Arts Centre English Theatre Presents

The world premiere of A National Arts Centre production
in collaboration with
the Arraymusic Ensemble (Toronto)
Production viewed:
September 30, 2006, 7:30 pm

Directed by Peter Hinton, Artistic Director, NAC English Theatre
Written and Composed by Allen Cole

Vocal Music Director and Rehearsal Pianist, Richard Evans
Orchestra Music Director, Bob Stevenson Artistic Director, Arraymusic
Set and Costume Design by Dany Lyne
Lighting Design by John (Jock) Munro
Sound Design by Peter McBoyle
Movement Director, Jo Leslie
Fight Director, John Koensgen
Assistant to the Director, Amanda Kellock


Tamara Bernier as Maggie
Randi Helmers as Chorus/Sgt. Douglas
Martin Julien as Cornell (the son)
David Keeley as Ryle
Corrine Koslo as Peg
John Millard as chorus/ Lt. Dice
Frank Moore as Cornell (the father)
Featuring members of Arraymusic Ensemble on stage:
Bob Stevenson, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet; Amy Horvey, Trumpet; Rick M. Sacks, Percussion I; Blair Mackay, Percussion II; Stephen Clarke, Piano; Rebecca van der Post, Violin; Peter Pavlovsky, Contrabass

Stage Manager, Laurie Champapgne
Assistant Stage Manager, Stefanie Seguin
Fight captain, Martin Julien
Assistant Lighting designer, Joshua Hind
Rehearsal Pianists, Richard Evans, Mark Ferguson

This production took me back to my university days (the mid to late fifties), when a substantial group of us all but abandoned classes each year to write, cast, rehearse and stage our annual musical. It was just like in the movies, when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney started off the whole zany expedition each time with what became a stock phrase: “Hey, gang: let’s do a show!” In each case, the music was definitely front and centre, the plots were cardboard melodrama (like the sets), the characters were stock, and it was all about the fun.

There was a lot to like about this show; and, of course, a little bit not to like.

You have probably seen the story in the papers, but it bears repeating: a musician, Ryle, hitch hiking from the scene of a murder is picked up by a rough-hewn loser on his way to a reunion with his wealthy, long-lost father. After the truck smashes into a pole, the musician makes his way to the father’s remote house to hide out, posing as his long-lost son. Of course, everything goes wrong. The details of the improbable plot are much more melodramatic than that, but what the heck: this is a musical.

Dany Lyne’s set and costume designs were smashing: from the shiny black radio studio set with its huge overleaning window gallery to house the orchestra to the sweeping gauzy draperies that served as often dramatic backdrops and scene specifiers, to the colour coded costume scheme (all primary tones or black and white), everything fell into place cleanly and beautifully. Lyne even told the story of Ryle’s transformation via a dramatic shift of costume colour scheme. The costumes certainly rang true to the period, right down to the girdles. And her trap doors were everything from dramatic to creepy.

Munro’s lighting design was super, with just the right melodramatic touches: lots of raking, back lit, side lit scenes lit from impossible angles, including the bottom of a blood-drenched washtub and the interior of a cast iron stove. By the way: that cast iron stove gave me one of my complaints: the pair of lighting instruments that gave the fire its glow just happened to reflect off the sloping glass gallery window and reflect blindingly into my eyes every time the stove was open.

The voices in the ensemble were all strong, ideally suited to the very technical demands of the score. I have noted four songs that stuck out as superb: for lack of a better reference, since the songs are not listed in the program nor on the web site, there were the laughing song, the idiot song, the father’s sea shanty, and the how to fire a pistol song. The father’s song was elegant in its simplicity, and with Frank Moore delivering it, delightful. The others were technically astounding and aesthetically engrossing.

About the program: I am not certain that I like the new format. There were at least two omissions: the song titles and strangely the indication of an intermission and its length. The latter was on the web site, but I did not see that until after seeing the production. My jury is still out on the disassociation of the bios from the photos and some other Hintonesque touches.

One problem that haunts musicals is that the songs practically kill the pace of the show: as soon as the characters break into song, you have the plot stand still while they rhapsodize or complain at length, repetitively, and from every angle about one plot point. There is no getting around it; that is part of what a musical is: a melodrama with long pauses for lyrical explication of plot points. Not every song is a winner, and some I felt I had to sit through, because it is not polite to walk around the theatre yawning pointedly when you are bored, although I believe some musicals practically call out for it. It was not that bad last night because the singers and the band were remarkably good.

Not only was the Arraymusic Ensemble a really good orchestra, but they were onstage the whole time, in black and white period costume, with really spot-on hairstyles on the women, behaving pretty well the way a studio orchestra of the time would behave. Much of the time the lighting and a scenic scrim obscured the orchestra. It was difficult to determine just what the scene on the scrim was (perhaps a heavily footmarked sand dune near a busy beach).

David Keeley, as Ryle Rawlins, the musician/protagonist, is imposing as a singer and as a physical presence on the stage. He was equally believeable as a good guy and as a brutal ex-husband. His voice is strong and true and carries emotion just as the demands of melodrama dictate.

Tamara Bernier, as Maggie, the peroxide blonde, is perfectly cast. Her torchy number at the start made me want more, but that was it, although she did take part in dramatic duets later. Loved her entry out of the trap draped over the black box or whatever. She had a hard edge to her which was absolutely consistent with her actions.

The Chorus, Randi Helmers and John Millard, were onstage just about all the time, and had really substantial parts to play in three of my favourite numbers as mentioned above. Both have superb voices and worked dtramatically exactly as necessary to the exposition and the dramatic impetus of the piece. They provided a strong backbone for the whole performance, demonstrating in the process how significant and effective a chorus can be.

Corrine Koslo, as Peg, the alcoholic ex-, drew up images of Stockard Channing at her randy best. At first, I thought she was a bit short for the role compared to the rest of the cast, but she was flashy enough to carry that off, and the red dresh certainly helped in that regard.

Martin Julien, as Cornell, the almost prodigal son, came off as significant in a rather limited role. His startling actions late in the plot are totally plausible, given his characterization, and that is a tribute to the writing, the directing, and the actor himself.

Frank Moore, as Cornell, the father, aside from reminding me visibly of a dissipated George Carlin, was a cornerstone of plausibility. Everything worked in this character, from the terribly worn yellow clothes to the hippy hair to the soft manner, and the tough lesson with the gun.

It has been a long wait for Allen Cole to see this work brought to the stage. It has been worth the wait. His score is impressive and although the plotting and characterizations are pretty stock, he did have some interesting twists, and it did play well, for a musical.

So, how did Peter Hinton’s first foray at the NAC make out? Pretty superbly well. His hand was evident in the slick production values, and the clever blocking in and around the various trapdoors and props, moving walls and curtains; for example, the staging of the accident is slick and effective: the stationary truck — a kind of trompe d’oeuil in itself — which had previously driven in, proceeds along the road as the characters speak, with blowing smoke effects simulating movement, then, at the moment of impact, a giant red gauzy traveller swoops across the whole stage, obscuring the truck; when the traveller removes, the truck is shown impacted against a large utility pole in an accident scene worthy of the movies. Hinton’s hand is also evident in the style of scenes like the deliberate shooting lesson that Moore’s character gives to Ryle, and this lesson becomes part of another dramatic song that impressed me as well. So Peter Hinton is off and running. Will he overcome a significant oversight and start casting some of Ottawa’s remarkable actors? I certainly hope so. Can he keep up this pace? I hope so.

Two final points: I am glad that Hinton’s first work is Canadian; I wish it had been a straight play. I have seen plays fill seats at the NAC. Musicals are populist, but even that did not fill the house. There were a lot of empty seats.



Here is a link to a rich array for production resources, music, references and study guides: The Wrong Son

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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