What with Toronto's Rob and Doug Ford, Alberta Premier Alison Redford and the scandal-plagued mayors of Montreal, a savvy Manhattan crowd might certainly mistake the title Blame Canada! for an evening of Great White Northern political satire. We've certainly been putting on a show of late.
In reality, though, Blame Canada!, which played here on Monday, was a coming-out celebration of Canadian musical theatrical talent, from singers to composers to lyricists – one in keeping with the character of the source country.
The 14-song cycle was staged humbly in the musical supper club 54 Below (referencing the club's basement location and Winnipeg's bitter winter). A block off Broadway, the Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective announced its arrival with a troupe of lesser-known veterans of musical theatre who've migrated from the Toronto scene to work on Broadway.
"We felt there was a need for a better sense of community in the Canadian theatre world," said Landon Braverman, who partnered with Joseph Trefler in the recent launch of the CMTWC, a group devoted to promoting the country's musical theatre writers.
How Canadian was it? The evening opened with a quintet of singers wearing Maple Leaf Olympic mittens belting out the energetically self-deprecating Don't Expect Too Much, a Leslie Arden tune that may have been referring to the no-frills staging – piano, drums, microphone stands. Indeed, only the piano would be used, by musical director Rick Fox. The full cast would, they promised, offer nothing but their voices, cheer, showbiz wit and the assurance that Canadian musical talent was ready for prime time.
The night was chummy, if not self-congratulatory. In mutton chops, battered jacket and Maple Leafs T-shirt, emcee Cliff Saunders tossed in a few Ford jokes and a semi-sarcastic rendition of O Canada, which the entire room joined in on (proving how few Americans were likely in the audience). Saunders is currently on Broadway playing Thénardier in Les Misérables, a production which, he informed the crowd, features six Canadians in its cast. So there.
Melissa van der Schyff was humourously graphic in her performance of The Prenatal Course from The Moose That Roared, a musical by Jim Betts. Then Keely Hutton and Alexandra Frohlinger dissected female frenemyship in Neil Bartram's The End of The Line. Going the extra kilometre, Sam Strasfeld even dropped a tap-dance routine into The End of The World (music by Trefler, lyrics by Jonathan Pearson). In The Sun Ain't Coming Out Tomorrow, Frohlinger bounced through a profane anti-Annie number, an evening highlight, with Hutton returning for the comic sprechgesang of 300 Stuffed Penguins, from the musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson.
The back half of the evening leaned more toward heftier musical numbers. Danielle Wade sang Thin Ice (music by Braverman, lyrics by Derek Hassler) in a room-conquering voice. Despite Timothy J. Alex's fittingly large vocal, Who I Am from Jonathan Monro's Variations on a Nervous Breakdown sounded overblown.
The evening turned briefly serious when Daniel Maté sat at the piano to play Marry Me, America, from his musical The Longing and the Short Of It. He explained the song title by describing the period when he'd lived in New York as an illegal.
A ripple of appreciation could be felt in the crowd.
The unexpected climax came as Saunders announced Melissa O'Neil had fallen ill and would not be able to perform a duet with Ryan Silverman in the closing number I Only Hear Your Voice, from Ted Dykstra's musical Evangeline. Wade, only 21, stepped in to replace her despite never having sung the number before. With the help of a lyric sheet, Wade's voice entwined nearly flawlessly with Silverman's as the audience first pulled for her, and then cheered her on.
There's an old gag: What do you call a group of Canadians? An apology. On this night in New York, it looked more like an ovation.
On March 24, Blame Canada! will be performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto at 2261 Dundas St. W. Tickets $20 advance, $25 door.