By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Best Summer Ever. Four words destined to live in infamy.
An open invitation to disaster, as well we know (and everyone knew at the time). And, hey, a banner for Alberta to carry onto the national (and international) stage as a world COVID infection giant. It produced head shakes, double-takes, out-and-out incredulity — and now an original musical satire.
Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer, a creation of Grindstone Comedy Theatre premiering Wednesday at the Campus St.-Jean auditorium, has black comedy in its heart and ridicule on its mind. Byron Martin, Grindstone’s indefatigable triple-threat artistic director, co-wrote the “80s frat party musical” with musical director Simon Abbott.
It’s a flashback to Kenney in college (Alberta University, 1983),” Martin explains. “And it opens with him winning Summer Session Students’ Union President, and Rachel Notley losing….” In fact, as Kenney and his Upsilon Kappa Pi buds plan “the hottest year-end party ever,” she’s the villain of the piece, a party pooper out for blood. And Justin Trudeau is her boyfriend. “They’re all in school together.”
The most reviled premier in Alberta history as the hero of the story? Really? “That makes it pretty heavy satire…. It’s kinda awful to watch in a way!” says Martin cheerfully. “Really it’s written from the perspective that maybe Jason Kenney wrote this play. The whole idea that he’d be the hero of the play is, you know, so ridiculous!”
“When I tried writing it the other way around, with Jason Kenney the villain, it wasn’t funny. That’s just real life. Not cathartic at all…. It takes turning it on its head to be able to laugh at it.”
That’s what happens with Notley, too, the villain of this ‘80s frat world. Stephanie Wolfe “does an amazing job,” says Martin. “She’s so funny…. And in real life Rachel Notley is pretty normal, nice, wholesome.”
The original impulse for the musical, originally planned for last summer’s Fringe, was a series of funny satirical videos that had Donovan Workun as Kenney and Abby Vandenberghe as Dr. Deena Hinshaw doing “updates,” à la Saturday Night Live. The sketches found their way into the 2020 Grindstone Christmas special.
“The musical is very different from the sketches,” says Martin.“We were wanting to write a satire about him, and wondering what the vehicle for that would be…. Musical theatre in itself is an exaggeration; it lends itself to satire.”
For his part Workun, one of the most fearless, funniest comic improvisers in this improv town, laughs “as soon as (the UCP) got into power, somebody was ‘hey you kind look like Jason Kenney; you should play him. That would be funny’.” He sighs. “Chubby, middle-aged white guy, great!” Of the TikTok videos that preceded the musical, he particularly remembers ‘Jason Kenney and the 1-800-sex chat Santa’. Both right in my wheelhouse.” He sighs again.
For a comedian/ satirist it wasn’t easy to suss out a Kenney keynote on which to hang a performance. “This guy doesn’t have a personality,” says Workun. “I don’t know what I should be doing.” And then it came to him.
When Martin persuaded him to do the video sketches on short notice, Workun had pleaded for a teleprompter. “Reading without my glasses was so hard … and I realized that reading poorly from the teleprompter is exactly what Jason Kenney does…. It’s the essence of him. His speech pattern is that it’s the first time he’s seeing whatever he’s reading and he has no idea what’s coming out of his mouth. I embraced that.”
Since a “bumbling fool” is the ‘hero’ of a two-act musical, the real question for Workun was “how do I help carry a show that’s funny and awesome and interesting when the two main characters are a little boring? Abby does the Deena Hinshaw monotone, and it’s funny. But how do I play JK, frat boy?” He channelled his own 19-year-old self, he says.
Like Martin, Workun thinks that making Kenney the villain of the piece would have been “way too easy.” Making him the hero is “the ultimate form of mockery…. ” It reminds him of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China. “He seems to be the hero but actually doesn’t do anything. Everyone just assumes he’s saving the day. But in reality it’s everybody else around him. And hey that’s another thing that’s pure JK: not doing much, screwing things up when he does, never picking up the tab…. It’s always on somebody else.”
“Pure Trump. Never apologize. It’s never your fault. It’s always somebody else who is incompetent….”
Though Workun is not principally known for musicals, he did star in Plain Janes revivals of Ankles Aweigh and Fiorello some years ago. “Martin asked me to do this, and I have trouble saying No,” he says happily. “If something really terrifies me, that’s the thing I should try. I’m going to learn something…. Improv is easy compared to this; I’d rather do a thousand improv shows than one of this!
With its three-piece band and eight-member cast, Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is a big project for Grindstone, “the biggest production budget we’ve worked with to date,” Martin says. In addition to Kenney, Hinshaw, Notley and Trudeau, and the dread Tyler Shandro, we’ll meet a gallery of supporting characters, including Tracy Allard, Kaycee Madu, and Sarah Hoffman. Allard, the ex minister of municipal affairs who notoriously went on a family holiday while the rest of us were following the rules, “brings mono back from Hawaii, and then there’s a big mono breakout.”
And everybody sings. Allard’s number? Aloha, natch. The song list includes Kenney’s two signature songs There’s Nothing Like A Rodeo and an ‘80s rock ballad Unify My Heart, Hinshaw’s Immune To Love, and Shandro’s Fuck Kenney. Martin declares Trudeau’s song, Ottawa, to be “one of the funniest in the show.” And c’mon, have you ever tried to rhyme Ottawa?
Notley’s anthem? It’s Only Just Begun.”
Topical political satires in this part of the world are pretty hard to find. Egged on by their friends, Martin and Abbott stepped up. And it’s a little nerve-wracking, Martin admits. He doesn’t want to name the company that wouldn’t let them run show billboards. The U of A, from which the College St.-Jean theatre is rented, wouldn’t let them put up signs.
But the show sold out its run in short order (with extra performances and a streamed version pending). And “the reaction so far has has been really awesome. The cast talks about how funny it is, and how much we’re laughing in rehearsal…. In the end, I’m really happy to be doing this,” Martin says. “Other people aren’t taking it on.”
Jason Kenney Hot Boy Summer the musical
Theatre: Grindstone Comedy Theatre and Bistro
Written by: Byron Martin and Simon Abbott
Directed by: Byron Martin
Starring: Donovan Workun, Abby Vandenburghe, Stephanie Wolfe, Malachi Wilkins, Kathleen Sera, Mark Sinongco, Tyra Banda, Sarah Dowling
Where: Campus St.-Jean Auditorium, 8406 91 St.
Running: Wednesday through Nov. 21
Tickets: grindstone theatre.ca