Review by Sean McQuaid
The Charlottetown Festival takes a lot of guff from critics about artistic integrity, cultural nationalism and such whenever they stage yet another recycled American jukebox musical (like the admittedly entertaining confection Million Dollar Quartet); but in the spirit of fair play, we grumpy media types should also take note when the Festival transcends commercial concerns to produce something uniquely artistic or Canadian or both.
A Misfortune is just such a project. As its program notes, it’s the fourth original Canadian musical the Charlottetown Festival has produced in recent years (after a test run at the Toronto Next Stage Theatre Festival in 2014), and it’s an odd little tragicomic chamber musical based on an ambiguous, melancholy, blackly comical 19th Century short story about marital infidelity. Not exactly the Charlottetown Festival shaking its money-maker, to be sure.
Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the musical features young rural housewife Sofya (played by Kelsey Falconer) and young urban lawyer Ivan (Connor Lucas), an old friend who declares his love for Sofya during a walk in the woods. A conflicted Sofya rejects Ivan — which makes it awkward when her oblivious husband Andrey (Réjean Cournoyer) invites Ivan to a dinner party at their cabin that night. Shenanigans ensue, thanks in part to added friction generated by the other party guests, theatrically volatile bickering married couple Masha (Melanie Phillipson) and Pavel (Brendan Wall).
Written by Kevin Michael Shea (book and additional lyrics), Wade Bogert-O'Brien (lyrics) and Scott Christian (music), and based on Anton Chekhov’s 1886 story of the same name, A Misfortune is broadly faithful to its source material. The musical’s biggest and best deviation from same is the invention of two entirely new characters, Masha and Pavel.
The additional party guests in Chekhov’s original story are insignificant background characters, but Shea’s prominently featured Masha & Pavel add a lot of broad, lively comic relief to a potentially bleak story, and their deeply dysfunctional but genuinely passionate relationship offers a vividly telling contrast to Sofya’s emotionally hollow marriage.
However entertainingly the Phillipson/Wall duo chews the scenery, the funniest character in the show may actually be Andrey — paradoxically, also perhaps the saddest character. Proper and practical, stubbornly clueless and relentlessly dull, Andrey’s an older man who has settled into a comfortable rut devoid of any romance or adventure, and he likes his life that way.
Shea’s script milks a surprising amount of comedy from this, aided by the superb Cournoyer’s deadpan comic timing; but however pompously dense he might be, the musical’s Andrey is likeable enough (arguably more so than his Chekhov counterpart) that we never fully lose sight of the story’s tragic dimension as Sofya starts slipping away from him and their daughter.
Falconer and Lucas are appealing romantic leads able to lather on the angst as required (though Falconer’s high notes seemed a bit shaky early on), the Shea/Bogert-O'Brien book & lyrics are often clever and amusing, and Christian’s music is well performed by his piano/flute/cello/violin quartet, even if most of the individual songs tend to blur together.
Brian Smith’s set design, depicting Sofya & Andrey’s cabin and the surrounding woods, is attractive and functional. I especially like the vaguely impressionistic trees, even if one of them did visibly wobble a bit as Lucas wended his way between them. At 70 minutes it’s a short play, and a somewhat dark one given the subject matter; but Chekhov’s core story remains compelling, and the musical’s script as executed skillfully by director Eliza-Jane Scott and company adds a lot of entertainment value without undermining the original tale’s morally murky vision.
—Plays select dates at The Mack to September 22, 2017. Tickets at www.confederationcentre.com.