By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
C’mon, who could have predicted that the hottest ticket in the first half of the Edmonton theatre season would be a show with “Jason Kenney” in the title?
Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is a bona fide hit. The first 10-show run of the original musical satire by the Grindstone Theatre team of Byron Martin and Simon Abbott, which played the 230-seat Campus St.-Jean Theatre, was sold out before it even opened on Nov. 10. Tickets to the added matinees vanished in two hours. The extended run, the “second wave” as Grindstone cheekily dubbed it, sold out too. So has the “third wave,” which has temporarily moved the production this week to the 350-seat The Orange Hub (the old Jasper Place MacEwan campus) from Campus St.-Jean, where it returns on Dec. 9.
And Martin, Grindstone’s enterprising but notably chill artistic director, and the director of the production, is planning for the “4th wave” (hey, that’s something the Alberta government should consider doing). It will happen in January at the Campus St.-Jean, dates to be announced when Martin has figured out the logistics of actor and venue availability for his cast of eight and the crack three-member live band that includes composer Abbott.
Yes, a lot of people are keen to see the perpetrator of the infamous mantra The Best Summer Ever — not coincidentally the most unpopular premier in Alberta history — as a dopey ‘80s frat boy college kid with a big rodeo party and not much else on his tiny mind. It’s 1983 and in a droll performance by Donovan Workun, Jason Kenney is the hapless “hero,” the newly elected Summer Session Students Union President at Alberta University. His nemesis, Rachel Notley the “villain” of the piece (Stephanie Wolfe), is a type-A super-organized control freak who’s the high-maintenance girlfriend of Justin Trudeau (Malachi Wilkins). See my review here.
“I feel very proud of the quality of the show…. But nobody expected it to blow up (like this),” says the bemused and slightly harried Martin, who’s had to replace an actor here and there for the second and third waves. “We’re still kinda scrappy and indie….”
Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is the biggest-budget undertaking ever for the little comedy company whose Strathcona headquarters is a 85-seat theatre/bistro (plus a 120-seat “education” venue for improv, stand-up, and sketch comedy workshops under the Mill Creek Cafe). The Grindstone is an entertainment destination with accessible ticket prices heavily weighted to improv, with regulars (and walk-up traffic), not subscribers.
Their productions, which regularly play the Fringe, are usually co-ops. The box office heat of Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer has been a game-changer. “We’ve been able to bump everybody up to professional Equity rates for the show,” says Martin of his cast and musicians. “It’s been my goal for so long!”
From the start Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer was designed to be a musical, says Martin, a musical theatre triple-threat himself by training, who leads Grindstone’s weekly all-improvised musical The 11 O’Clock Number. Maybe Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is having a spin-off effect; that show has been sold out for the last eight weeks.
For one thing, as Martin said in an interview with 12thnight in November (see it here), musical theatre, with its built-in heightening effect, lends itself to satire. And original political satire is a rarity in these parts. One local billboard company refused to run Grindstone’s ads, for example.
For another, Martin’s own tastes in musicals run to comedy-satires like Urinetown (which has directed for the Fringe) or The Book of Mormon. His musical ThunderCATS, which he honed at the Banff Centre under the mentorship of Bob Martin and Lisa Lambert of The Drowsy Chaperone fame, falls under that category, too, as you’ll glean from its title. He’s thinking of revisiting the idea of the ThunderCATS tour that got canned for COVID.
So who are the people filling the house seats to hear some catchy songs with clever lyrics — and watch a dazed doofus, champion of Upsilon Kappa Pi, tell Dr. Deena Hinshaw (Abby Vandenberghe’s very funny comic reinvention of the monotonous, ever-compliant government doctor) that he’d never realized science was a thing? “A weird combo,” says Martin. “The political crowd is showing up, MLAs, city councillors.… And a very blue-collar Alberta crowd is coming out too, not traditionally a theatre-going crowd. And also older theatre-goers; they line up early. A mix with more of a Grindstone crowd…. And some theatre people. But not a lot,” he laughs.
“I’ve been blown away that everybody’s heard of it now; the reach has been pretty amazing,”
An audience favourite — they cheer and sing along every night — is Tyler Shandro’s raucous number Fuck Kenney. In oppressive times, where things feel royally screwed up, “it’s a release,” says Martin. The moment Jason Kenney talks about chemistry, saying “the curriculum must have changed,” always gets a big laugh too, he reports. Workun, a dangerously skilled improviser, has played his part in honing the script. “Donovan killed us in rehearsal….We’ve encouraged the actors to be mischievous; we’re not too precious.”
There are theatre jokes too. Wilkins plays both Trudeaus, father and son, because “we don’t have the budget for another actor,” he tells the audience.
“I’m pretty happy with the laughs per minute,” says Martin. “And I’ve been getting nice messages about how cathartic, healing even, it is. So nice to hear and so hilarious in its own way…. We’re making light of it, but it’s heavy stuff we’re poking at,” says Martin. “It just reminds you how important it is to laugh; laughter really is good medicine….”
It seems obvious that Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer should play Calgary, too; the Calgary media have been in touch, says Martin. He’s hoping for an 18-performance run “some time between January and March.” But the logistics are tough. Some of his actors have full-time jobs to work around. Venues with available dates are hard to find, and “it’s an eye-opener what some of them cost.”
Martin approached one Calgary venue for a rental and got refused on the grounds that “we don’t do political satire. We have to stay politically neutral because we get government grants.” Martin sighs, and laughs. “That’s so funny. As if it’s politically neutral to turn down our show!”
Grindstone is on to something. That’s satire in itself.
Check Grindstone Theatre for updates on the fourth wave, and tickets.