Epic in scale (and complication). Horror, mythology, folk tale, social satire in a new musical… The Erlking, a Fringe review

The Erlking, Scona Alumni Theatre Co. Photo supplied

The Erlking (Stage 23, Strathcona High School)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a fascinating ambition about the mélange of horror, mythology, folk tale and social satire in this new musical (book, music, lyrics) by Chris Scott.

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In a small town outside a city, children have been disappearing, right at harvest time. The mayor is a fascist who hates poor people and the lower classes generally, the Catholic priest is creepy, and there’s a peculiar stranger in town with a grievance and a proposition for kids. Ah, and everyone has stopped believing in magic. 

No, my friends, we’re not in Brigadoon any more. We’re not even in that midwestern town in Footloose where the mayor is dead set against rock n’ roll and dancing. 

The Erlking is an original, and it’s epic (a Fringe rarity) — not only in conception, in cast size (12 performers), in sound (big electronic orchestral tracks that, alas, in the opening performance’s sound mix tended to drown out the lyrics), but in plot complications. 

The opening scenes of the Scona Alumni Theatre production, which review the fateful events of the year before, set forth a rigid class system where the poor kid outcasts sing and dance in rambunctious fashion, and the compliant upper-class kids form prim quartets and sing like church choirs. Scott’s music, which includes a kind of operatic recitative to propel the narrative, is unfailingly inventive.

The mayor (Annette Loiselle) talks the talk: children are our future, children are the preservers of our way of life, etc. etc. she says on more than one occasion. But as for walking the walk … well, we meet her own children. Michael is a conflicted young man since his best friend is lower-class. Michael’s sister is a steely-eyed upholder of the maternal orthodoxy, without her mother’s beaming smile and fake charm.

The stranger in town (Natalie Czar), as you quickly glean (not a spoiler), is the Erlking, After a lot of teasers to everyone onstage, it transpires they’ve come to correct a myth maladjustment in which they are routinely maligned as an evil elf who lures kids to their deaths. Their goal is to restore the lustre of their ancient reputation and make life better for everyone, by reinstating magic. But they’re unwilling (unable?) to use their powers right away. Why? Possibly it’s because they rely on faith and belief, and both have atrophied, as the characters reveal in a somewhat repetitive sequence of scenes. 

Anyhow, the Erlking, who prefers to go incognito, uses a variety of aliases (“just another grain inspector,” they say, “making her way through the void of capitalism”). The story unfolds in a series of repeated musical argument scenes to reinforce the set-up — between Michael and the other kids, the Erlking and skeptical kids, the mayor and the kids, the kids amongst themselves, the mayor and the mayor’s empathetic maid.… 

There’s no shortage of juicy ideas and vivid characters here. But since the Erlking, who’s high-spirited, recruits one kid at a time, with lots of scenes devoted to second thoughts and re-tries, the serial, looping nature of the storytelling makes the whole thing feel a bit over-extended, in truth. It takes quite a while to build — there are a lot of entrances and exits — and might fruitfully be condensed. And there are big rewards to be had in doing that, I think.

You’ll enjoy the spoken dialogue of the script with its barbed comments about education cuts, pedophile priests, the inequities of the economic status quo. There’s an unusual and impressive musical here in the making, a couple of drafts from its final form. Hey, that’s the magic of the Fringe. 

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