By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Chocolate-coated stories prodding you to follow your dreams are not in short supply in the world. Stories that exhort you to find out who owns them first — maybe you’re just a renter; maybe your lease is about to expire; maybe the bank will repossess — well, they’re a lot scarcer.
Certainly, they don’t emerge onto the stage with more playful imaginative zest and witty physicality than Fortune Falls, the latest original musical from Catalyst Theatre’s playwright/composer/director Jonathan Christenson and his creative collaborators, joined for the occasion by co-writer Beth Graham.
So this is the scene: rumbles of thunder at the outset, with echoes from a ghostly choir. Four smudged, chalky-faced figures emerge from the mist in a sinister Victorian factory, a tarnished and moody two-storey design by Kerem Çetinel.
They have a haunted look about them, this quartet of Dickensian pop-goth rockers, costumed fancifully by Megan Koshka. And they move in synch like wind-up puppets — distinctive choreography by Catalyst’s endlessly inventive Laura Krewski — as they deliver a jaunty pop jingle gone slightly rancid, about their “home sweet home.”
It’s a Hershey-esque town that worships at the chocolate altar. And they are “the children of Mercey,” they tell us. And, flung from paradise, they’re invoking “the glory days” of the Mercey chocolate factory that’s always given the town of Fortune Falls its jobs, its raison d’être, its dreams.
Mercey, incidentally, also provides the town of Fortune Falls its supply of puns, witness a continuing series of light verbal volleys. Fortune Falls, a telling name in itself, is the wispy fable of a town with Mercey that becomes a town without Mercey. Yes, the factory closes, and the big bad world, merciless you might say, is at hand. A sweet tooth cedes to the appetite for profit.
Like Charlie Bucket, whose relationship with a certain well-known chocolate factory has found its way onto stage and screen in multiple incarnations, Fortune Falls’s young protagonist believes in a golden ticket. As he explains in another of Christenson’s catchy pop songs, Everett Liddelman (the affecting Daniel Fong), who habitually leans forward in anticipation and looks upwards in case there’s a vision, has always dreamed of working at Mercey Chocolate Inc. like his father before him. His rejection letters accumulate exponentially.
One day, it happens: he’s hired. And as Everett arrives at the empty, darkened factory, a veritable Candide of a guy, full of hope — no, certainty — that the factory is about to reopen, his dream unspools as a nightmare. It’s the story of a dreamer who bites into a caramel creme and finds a stone.
He’s handed a map, and the eerie imaginary world he explores is full of bizarre fleeting encounters, like the ones Alice has in Wonderland. Outsized animals appear, shimmer, and vanish. So do characters who, strangely, seem to know his name.
He meets Franklin (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), an aspirational tour guide with no tours to guide. He even meets the deceased, but far from dead, founder of Mercey Chocolate Inc. himself, Milton Emerson Mercey (Graham Motherwell), a pre-Trump oligarch who has dreams beyond his infinite greed.
The cast is excellent, both individually and together. Shannon Blanchet as the formidable grand-dame company manager Evelyn Frost is consistently amusing. And in one of the scariest, funniest scenes, performed with dazzling virtuosity by Dowler-Coltman, the upwardly mobile tour guide becomes the CEO of Mercey Chocolate Inc. — at the very moment it’s moving out forever. He’s the American Dream on legs, and spring-loaded ones at that.
You’ll recognize the Catalyst esthetic, with its bold surreal imagery, its affection for the grotesque, the precise physicality of its ensemble, its deliberate uncertainties about “reality.” And Matthew Skopyk’s clever sound design contributes to all of the above, with its intricate aural landscape of echoes and front-end anthems.
Christenson’s score opens with a pop ode to the glories of the sweet town and its shared dreams. It ends with another sort of well-travelled mantra, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” as Everett confronts his chocolate-free future. What was mysterious turns out to be conventional wisdom, after all. Take charge of your life; go forward; don’t be gulled by bullshit. Lyrics, for Christenson, are looped; his musical sensibility is serial, based on repetition that turns phrases into incantations.
So there’s much you’ll recognize as Catalyst in Fortune Falls. Still, this surreal adventure tour, with its dark whimsy and non-sequiturs, is a striking departure from the muscular narrative of Vigilante, the 2015 rock musical that re-visited one of Canada’s most lurid unsolved crimes. It’s also unlike the fantasias Christenson has spun from intricate literary narratives, Nevermore, Hunchback and Frankenstein among them. Its progenitors are the dark free-floating plotless Catalyst dreams of earlier provenance — like Carmen Angel or The Blue Orphan — where nothing is caused, and everything changes.
In Fortune Falls, there are narrators — an ensemble of them, who step in and out of characters and divvy up the “storytelling” — but no real narrative. For those devoted to narrative momentum, Fortune Falls will feel more like a straight-forward declaration of caution about credulity than an adventure in illusion and delusion.
I say, let your mind play over the possibilities, though. That’s what Fortune Falls invites you to do. “We don’t know what happens next,” says the characters near the end. Abandoning a dream? Getting cornered into finding another? Doesn’t that ring a bell after all, in the here and now?
Written by: Jonathan Christenson and Beth Graham
Directed by: Jonathan Christenson
Starring: Daniel Fong, Shannon Blanchet, Graham Mothersill, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Jamie Tognazzini
Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre
Running: through Feb. 5
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com