A jazzy new musical with a bank robber folk hero: Pretty Boy The Musical at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Mark Vetsch, creator and director of Pretty Boy: The Musical, a jazzy new musical with a Depression Era bank-robbing hero. 

Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering at Nextfest 2018. Rehearsal photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He was charming, sexy, generous, nattily turned out, downright likeable. Women found him irresistible. Name: Charles Floyd. Occupation: bank robber. Rank: America’s Public Enemy No. 1.

And now, he’s the hero of a jazzy new musical by Mark Vetsch and Stephanie Urquhart. How Pretty Boy Floyd became a Depression Era folk hero, ladies’ man, and media darling — not mention possessor of a nickname he hated — is what you’ll find out in Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering on the Nextfest MainStage today. 

Vetsch had immersed himself in the 1920s, and was on his way to creating “a barbershop musical” destined for a Fringe BYOV when he got diverted by an intriguing discovery. It was “the pretty crazy story” of Pretty Boy Floyd’s improbable real-life career, which came to an abrupt end when the FBI gunned him down in 1934. Vetch was hooked: “This sounds like a musical to me!” He instantly imagined the moments, like ‘stick ‘em up!’, that would become musical numbers.

Bank-robbing sprees are good for that. And they’re good as well for the Robin Hood reverb.

That was a year-and-a-half ago. “I bought one biography, then two more,” says Vetsch, who teaches theatre at Scona, a high school known for its musical theatre expertise. Intriguingly, “history was full of contradictions.”

“I guess it was the epic-ness of the journey” that spoke musical theatre to Vetsch. “The story was so compelling,” event-filled, the stuff of legends. “En route to prison, Pretty Boy Floyd jumped out of the window of a moving train — and survived…. In a shoot-out he got shot in the head — and survived.” In short, says Vetsch, “the story felt big enough to support a musical.”

Vetsch and Nextfest have a history together, starting when the former was just out of high school. He’s been part of collective creations unveiled there. He’s been a stage manager, an actor, a director. “My first-ever paycheque was for a monologue I did at one of the (Nextfest) niteclubs!”

Edmonton audiences know Vetsch best, perhaps, for hanging out with Shakespeare, via multiple collaborations with Thou Art Here, the site-sympathetic company that finds unconventional destinations for their resident playwright in bars, in backyards, in puppet theatres, in haunted houses or vintage mansions. “This is my first big show alone,” he says of Pretty Boy.

And big it is: two acts, six actors and a four-piece jazz band to deliver Urquhart’s ‘20s/‘30s-style score. Damon Pitcher plays Pretty Boy Floyd, and the five other actors take on a variety of roles, including joint narration.

Vetsch, who directs the show, also wrote the lyrics for the 13 songs. It might have been a daunting prospect, in theory, till he realized that “making up songs” is exactly what he’s been doing for the six years he’s been part of Grindstone Theatre’s The 11 O’Clock Number, a weekly show in which entire musicals improvised on the spot.

“Put up your hands and we’ll get along just fine.” The lyrics came “a lot more naturally than I’d ever thought.” 

Pretty Boy: The Musical runs today, Saturday, June 7 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Performance schedule and tickets available at nextfest.ca. 

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