By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You know the songs. Heck, you can’t NOT know the songs.
By now they’re in the collective DNA, and that much-abused term iconic doesn’t go amiss. Which is both a magnetic draw and a challenge for creators of revues and jukebox extravaganzas.
The hit catalogues of pop superstars Tom Jones and Elton John are the soundtrack for Two Good Knights, the season-opener at the Mayfield, purveyors of deluxe musical entertainments. Will Marks, the company’s mysterious resident musical hunter/gatherer, has fashioned an annotated two-act celebration of the the oeuvre of the two legendary Brits.
And in the production staged by Dave Horak and directed musically by Van Wilmott, two excellent performers, backed by a top-notch seven-piece band (and back-up singer/dancers), invoke their spirit and personality, sound and signature stage styles. And they do it without resorting to the dread impersonation mode.
True, Sir Thomas John Woodward (Kieran Martin Murphy), pride of Pontypridd, and Sir Elton Hercules John (Keith Retson-Spalding), late of Yorkshire, are very different artists. Well, OK, they have the Queen in common (hold that thought). They both changed their names; they both made a lot of money. And both their impressively-long careers have had dips and re-births.
But Two Good Knights doesn’t concern itself unduly with these biographical matters. They’re flimsy framing material for Will Marks. Mainly, they’re fodder for the sprite-ly comic ministrations of Chris Bullough. He puckishly leaps in and out of guises, accents, and costumes as the awestruck (occasionally rueful) narrator/chronicler, a stream of managers and agents, members of defunct bands, the odd relative, diverse musicians like Neil Diamond, who appears and vanishes long before the ice in your Tiny Dancer cocktail can melt. Ah yes, and Queenie herself in full regalia, a party girl manquée, who thanks the newly appointed Sir Elton for his stellar contributions to British culture, “especially the retail sector.”
What saves the narration from the portentous biographical intervention style that’s more usual in revues is its (a) scarcity and (b) its wry tone. Bullough gives all his moments in this incarnation a certain satirical edge, established in the opening moments of Two Good Knights. We find Tim Jones in full Murphy throttle delivering Oh, What A Night and discover, thanks to our narrator, that it’s the ‘80s and he’s in in mid-career slump, reduced to performing ladies’ night in small-town Massachusetts.
The star, who’s played with charm and a kind of appealing self-awareness by the lustrous-voiced Murphy, is somewhat aggrieved by the narrator’s dramatic scenario: “an agonizing 15-year drought with no hits” and the “sheer determination to climb out of this horrendous hole.”
That’s how the “story” is introduced: a sexy Welsh guy with great pipes and a history of working in a leather glove-making factory and selling Electro-Luxes door-to-door until … the classic moment of discovery. And the tone, endemic to Horak’s production, gives such standard revue segues as “everything he touched turned to gold” a tweak.
Murphy, captures the signature extravagant physicality of the Welsh star in his magnetic performance (choreography by Christine Bandelow, who’s also a back-up singer and dancer, along with Jennifer McMillan).
In Act II, very different in theatrical style, the narrator cedes his role to Elton John’s early music-writing partner Bernie Taupin. And Retson-Spalding, new to the Mayfield stage, takes over at the grand piano as the energetically flamboyant pop star with the neo-Liberace taste in evening wear. He evokes the mannerisms, and the vocal/keyboard pizzaz of Elton John with gusto and humour.
As always at the Mayfield under Van Wilmott the musical values are startlingly high, the local performers are substantial talents, and the song list is nothing if not generous. What gives the show its theatrical bounce is a terrific videoscope by the endlessly inventive designer Matt Schuurman. Two Good Knights is unexpectedly fun to watch, as well as to listen to.
His projections, which play on a variety of screens and even the piano, are clever and witty, an unhinged free-association of images that release the show from the bonds of song catalogue.
I leave you to discover what Schuurman does with Rocket Man, The Lion King, Crocodile Rock , and Benny and the Jets. It reimagines the musical revue format.
Two Good Knights
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Directed by: Dave Horak, Van Wilmott
Starring: Kieran Martin Murphy, Keith Retson-Spalding, Chris Bullough, Christine Bandelow, Jennifer McMillan
Running: through Oct. 28
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca