By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“It’s a grand night for singing/ The stars are bright above. / The earth is a-glow/ And to add to the show, I think I am falling in love!
— Rodgers and Hammerstein, State Fair
Barring starlight, the moon, or a candle, Plain Jane’s idea of natural lighting is the chandelier. Six (designed by Matt Currie) overhang the stage for Ah, Romance! .
It’s a theatre company that lives exclusively in a world where characters think their thoughts and consider their options in song, and burst into it when they dream. The deluxe Janes revue currently running on the Varscona stage explores the musical theatre repertoire, their home turf, to shed light on strange and transformational phenomenon of romance.
And, as they’ll demonstrate in this delightful revue, romance isn’t some fixed heart condition. People — and hence the people of musical theatre — don’t all fall headlong into it. Some climb into it arduously, hand over hand; some slide into it from the side. Some get there by accident, amazed because they were actually going somewhere else but were holding the map upside down. Some arrive ambivalent, some wary, toe first and tending to their burns.
And some arrive kicking and screaming, like the starlet in the Cy Coleman musical On The Twentieth Century who pretends to ponder the question “when will I be available?” She concludes “Never!” at top volume in a number memorably delivered by Jocelyn Ahlf in the show. Ah, Lily, never say never; it’s an unspoken rule in musical theatre.
But I digress. OK, so maybe romance is a journey; enter choreographer Cindy Kerr, who knows exactly what moves that can take. In Ah, Romance! there’s a number for every stop or pause or backward glance — from the wistful librarian Marian with her modest dreams of romance in My White Knight from The Music Man to the imperious seductress we meet in Whatever Lola Wants from Damn Yankees. And from there to the witty insight that marriages are built on the cumulation of the small stuff, no matter how aggravating (It’s The Little Things You do Together, from Sondheim’s Company).
And it’s for Kate Ryan’s cast of five lustrous-voiced actor-singers, led by Ahlf and Ron Pederson (in his Janes debut), to create the particular dramatic world the character inhabits in each of them. It’s one thing to become a character in the context of a whole musical; it’s another to do this in single song — even if you’re assisted by a pianist as responsive and elegant as David Fraser, a master of style.
And the songs Ryan has chosen are a lesson in musical theatre complexity. Madelaine Knight conjures with charm the exhilarating sexual self-discovery of the heroine of Fun Home in Changing My Major. She’s the modern, sexual parallel to the excited apprentice in Hello, Dolly!, in Jason Hardwick’s appealing delivery of It Only Takes A Moment. In the comical Buddy’s Blues from Sondheim’s Follies, he plays both parties in a droll high-speed internal assessment of romantic ambivalence.
In Unusual Way, from Nine, Gianna Read conveys the confusion of a woman who loves a man, but not in the way he loves here.
Pederson, an outstanding addition to the Janes coterie, attacks Romantic Atmosphere with huge comic zest at the top of the show. And all his contributions feel dimensional and expressive; I loved the excitable character he creates in the title song of She Loves Me.
Ahlf’s apparently inexhaustible vocal range extends from operatic to musical theatre belt. And this: He Plays The Violin, a deceptively simple song I’ve never heard from a musical I don’t know at all (1776), has Thomas Jefferson’s wife finding the romantic side of her intellectual distant husband in his music.
There are duets, ensemble numbers for the five performers, even a dance riff to the Gershwins’ S’Wonderful (Hardwick and Read, armed and legged with Kerr’s graceful choreography).
What is this I’m saying? What is this I’m feeling?” wonders a man (Pederson) in Love Can’t Happen from Maury Yeston’s Grand Hotel. This is the show to pose those questions from every angle.
It’s a grand night for singing, and acaptivating evening of possibilities.
Ah, Romance! A revue of song, dance, and other passionate musings
Theatre: Plain Jane
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jason Hardwick, Ron Pederson, Gianna Read, Madelaine Knight
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Feb. 25
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or the door