By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I would never lie; I’ve taken poli-sci.”
This declaration in song from the goofball hero got a big laugh from the preview night crowd at Grindstone Theatre’s new musical satire Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer.
Hey, people, I hear the incredulity in your voice. Hero? Jason Kenney? Yup, in the musical created by the Grindstone team of Byron Martin and Simon Abbott, Kenney (Donovan Workun) is the newly elected Summer Session Students’ Union President at Alberta University c. 1983; we see the ballot box being stuffed. He leads a frat boy crusade to ensure that The Best Summer Ever will happen. And let’s face it, The Best Summer Ever can’t be best without a rockin’ rodeo party and hot cowboys. Priorities, people, priorities.
Yes, Kenney will have moments of self-doubt, well, OK, paranoia. Heavy is the head that wears the … whatever. Yes, his heroic quest will be thwarted by an outbreak of the flu (don’t you hate when that happens?). Yes, he will have moments when it dawns on him that everything is screwed up. Yes, he will even make discoveries and learn stuff: “Wow! I didn’t even know science was real,” he tells Dr. Deena Hinshaw (Abby Vandenberghe). “I always thought it was a myth.”
And his nemesis, the bad guy with the villain laugh, is Rachel Notley (Stephanie Wolfe). She’s outraged that funding to the jazz club has been diverted by Kenney et al towards partying. She’s outraged by the mess in the quad, outraged by flagrant rule-breaking, and really really outraged by losing the summer session election. “How could I lose to such idiots? It shoulda been me; it shoulda been mine!” she shouts at her boyfriend Justin Trudeau (Malachi Wilkins), shaking her fist like a Greek tragedian at the cosmic injustice of it all.
There are amusing shivs, like Justin’s outrage that the drama club funding got cut just when he got a starring role … as Othello. But the strokes, as you will glean, are generally broad in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer. We’ll meet the younger “versions” — singing and dancing ’80s college kids — of characters whose names we know even if we don’t entirely recognize them: Tyler Shandro, Tracy Allard, Kaycee Madu, Justin Trudeau (son of the Dean).
In these appalling times, does this upending whereby JK is the hero (and Notley is the villain) actually work? Don’t go to Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer expecting a stinging surgical dissection of the scene — the one that turned Alberta infamously into a how-not-to guide to pandemics and sent Kenney plummeting to most-hated status at the bottom of the polls. A dunce cap and a red nose lets the guy off easy, of course. But that’s not what this is. It’s a high-spirited, giddy, oddly genial affair, more a fraternity party roast rather than a scathing satire. Claire Theobold’s set, assembled and re-assembled with dispatch, captures that rollicking feel, too.
The script gives a cast of actors with comic chops a menu of grotesqueries to work with. Workun’s amusing performance fashions Kenney as a self-centred ignoramus, a dazed party-hearty dimbulb, too dumb to even be unscrupulous. In a hilariously physical performance, full of semaphore arms, Wolfe creates Notley from keynotes of quivering righteous indignation. Vandenberghe turns into comedy the blandly monotonous government doctor we know from catastrophic ‘updates’ and the uninflected overuse of the word “concerning.” Which is an achievement.
Wilkins will make you laugh as Trudeau, dancing across hot coals at all times, exiting histrionically like the Prince in Swan Lake, pausing oddly in the middle of sentences.
The story has its patchy bits, to be sure. And there’s a certain scrambly goofball quality to the whole thing. The real success of the new musical is the music. It’s accompanied by a first-rate live three-piece band led by composer Abbott at the keyboard. The songs are genuinely impressive — catchy, complex, with clever lyrics — in a variety of styles.
Martin and Abbott know their musical theatre, expertly locating the songs, the weave of solo and ensemble numbers. The evening has an energizing Broadway-style production number to open, led by the frat boys of Upsilon Kappa Pi. And it’s bookended with an equally fab closer. In between you’ll hear solos, duets, trios. In the way it has fun with the conventions of musical theatre, it reminds me a little of the mocking but chin-up spirit of The Book of Mormon, turning villains into dopes.
Trudeau gets a very funny song, Ottawa, woven with three- syllable rhymes. Deena Hinshaw, the ultimate science nerd, gets a G&S style epidemiology patter song (really) and a romantic solo about how unromantic she is (Immune To Love). Fuck Kenney, Shandro’s number, is a driving assortment of off-rhythms.
Not all of the cast are great singers but, damn!, they all know how to power a song. And in the end, there’s something valiant about creating something fun, with smart songs, from the grim and awful raw material at hand.
Jason Kenney’s 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: through Nov. 21
Tickets, masking and vaccination requirements: grindstone theatre.ca